Written by: Stephy Jackson
At the end of the 2016-2017 school year, the Palo Alto Unifed School District announced that certain support staff positions would be eliminated due to a shortfall in the district budget, and a reallocation of funding from Partners in Education (PiE).
According to Principal Kathleen Laurence, at the end of the 2016-17 school year the district had Gunn and Paly cut one full-time equivalent (FTE) position from the classified staff (uncertified and non-teaching staff such as department secretaries and tech support). In addition to that one position, 2.25 other FTE classified positions would be eliminated due to PiE’s decision to shift funding to three areas: Wellness and Support, Visual and Performing Arts and science, technology, engineering and math.
Laurence was able to request a one-year grace period that postpones the 2.25 classified staff position cuts until sometime this spring.
Principal’s Secretary Martha Elderon believes that classified staff help promote the wellbeing of teachers and students. “We want to support the teachers—that’s what the classified workers do, which is not just for our benefit but really for the benefit of the students because it helps lighten the teachers’ workloads,” she said. Elderon explained that most of the work done by clerical staff is logistical and organizational planning, and she feels that there would be consequences if classified staff positions were eliminated. “If we aren’t there to support the teachers, then they get stressed and as a result, students don’t get as much teaching time from them,” she said.
According to Elderon, staff cuts only exacerbate the workload of individual departments. “The result of last year’s cut was that we lost our science and social studies secretary and the remaining secretaries need to fill in, so it is detrimental to the departments,” Elderon said. The remaining position cuts were postponed when enough funding was found to pay the salaries of classified staff positions until spring 2018.
Science department Instructional Supervisor Laurie Pennington has been directly affected by the loss of the science and social studies secretary. According to Pennington, the district cut a full-time clerical position from both high schools. “There were other positions that had been funded by money from PiE funds that were no longer going to be funded,” she wrote in an email. “Because of that, a number of secretaries had received notices of layoff; however, when the district decided to let [the school] take another year to figure things out, they allowed us to continue with all positions but one FTE clerical. e FTE clerical position with the staff member of the lowest seniority was eliminated. The one with the least seniority happened to the be science, social studies and career tech-ed secretary.” Pennington explained that the cut greatly increased the workload of the remaining secretaries. “They added social studies to the [responsibilities of the] secretary who manages the world language department and language lab and they added science to the [math and English] department secretary’s job,” she said.
Teachers and staff have been protesting the budget cuts at School Board meetings. Science teacher Maria Powell went to a School Board meeting on Oct. 6 to express her concerns about the consequences of the cuts. Powell spoke about the classified staff as critical to the functioning of the school. “The proposed cuts to Gunn’s classified staff demonstrates a gross lack of understanding of the fundamental tasks required to keep the school functioning,” she said at the meeting. “If your plan is for the job tasks of these classified positions to be shared among the administrators and staff that remain, the educational programs will suffer. Students will suffer.”
Powell is more specifically concerned about the repercussions of the potential cuts of the Attendance Secretary and Academic Tech Specialist positions, who keep record of attendance and assist with technological problems. “Reducing a position in the attendance office while eliminating a whole academic tech specialist threatens to reverse the progress that’s been made,” she said.
Language Lab Secretary Kristine Ludemann is one of the staff members who could potentially be cut. As Language Lab secretary, Ludemann assists in any technological needs of students and teachers in the language lab and ensures that lab activities run smoothly. World Language Instructional Supervisor Liz Matchett emphasizes the important role Ludemann plays in helping world language teachers with their lessons involving technology. Matchett, along with other world language teachers, attended multiple board meetings to discuss their concerns regarding the language lab and to challenge the true necessity of the staff budget cuts. Matchett believes the way staff found out about the cuts was handled poorly. “We never knew exactly when the cuts are were going to be made until at 2 p.m. on the last day of school. It was really badly done. I can’t ever remember in all my years of teaching being so angry,” she said. “It felt really bad…so I started going to board meetings, writing letters and rallying people to show people what everybody does and the support system that we have in place—we have an amazing support system.”
Ludemann’s current role is to watch over all students in the Language Lab and provide students and teachers with the technological resources they need. “It’s used all day long, and it’s open for students to come any time to make up work,” Ludemann said. “So if there’s not a person there to monitor it, it’ll be closed for students’ use.” Matchett and Ludemann outlined some of the problems that could arise without a lab secretary or no Language Lab at all, such as a lack of audio resources during AP testing or a back-up for tech support when teachers need help in the classroom with Chromebooks. Without a staff member in the Language Lab, teachers may have to send students to the Testing Resource Center (TRC), a solution posing difficulties, according to Matchett. “ e problem with that is that the TRC is not always open, and the person there doesn’t have all the equipment to support the students for the things that we do and the way that we do it,” she said. “It’s going to take us backwards from where we are.”
According to TRC Coordinator Dennis Ochoa, the School Board is discussing reducing the hours the TRC would be open, a decision which would directly affect support staff who work there. During the last week of school last year, Ochoa received an email addressed to about 15 other staff members at Gunn about the possible eliminations of staff positions. “It was a little scary because I’ve been here a while, and I never thought it would affect me personally, but that’s when I started thinking ‘I’m not safe,’” he said. Ochoa believes staff and administrators should address the issue as soon as possible. “It’s one of those things that we should talk about now, but we are currently pushing it away hoping that it will go away,” he said.
According to Elderon, the administration can not do much about potential consequences of losing classified staff . “They say their hands are tied because of the district,” Elderon said. “They’re doing the best they can to preserve as many jobs as they can.” Elderon feels that the budget cuts are affecting the morale of the classified staff members. “It’s bad because it makes every classified staff member feel insecure because our jobs are at risk,” she said.
Pennington says that there are unexpected consequences of these budget cuts. “It’s jobs and it’s people that are attached to those jobs…I think that the diffculty is that they decide to make budget cuts in the district and they don’t know [that cutting some of the support staff at a district level] would end up affecting us greatly,” she said. The effects of the cuts are leaving some teachers and staff members frustrated and afraid; however, Matchett has hope in the community. “I believe the community wants to support the teachers in what they are trying to accomplish with their students,” she said. She also emphasized the importance of spreading awareness of the potential effects that the budget cut could have on Gunn. “Start to notice the support system that’s in place for you, and imagine if that wasn’t there how that would be for you and then decide if you want to do something about it,” she said.