Benefits In Doubt
Santa Ana school district employees are steamed that the district is turning full-time jobs into part-time ones—and being sneaky about it


Next fall at Santa Ana public schools, a visit to the librarian, the computer technician, the registrar and the school nurse may be a one-stop shop. Dozens of district employees, including an instructional aide who initiated a hunger strike, protested outside the district offices last week, denouncing the sneaky way, they say, Santa Ana Unified School District officials went about proposing job cuts that could affect librarians, office assistants and other employees who hold non-administrative, non-teaching positions in the district.

School-district officials proposed last week consolidating, renaming and reducing hundreds of full-time jobs to part-time positions with less pay and no health benefits, infuriating employees and parents. The most alarming part, says longtime board member John Palacio, is that the administration disguised potential layoffs under "new job description" categories included in the reports given to board members by the district the Friday before the June 24 meeting.

"They tried to be slick," Palacio says of district officials. "It's insulting, from a board point of view, when staff give you deliberately one-sided information. The report doesn't tell you how many positions were collapsed into one, the fiscal impact this will have or about the subsequent laying off of people. It doesn't tell you that they will go from full-time to part-time salaries, that there are no health benefits and that there are less hours. It doesn't tell you that if a person takes the job, they will lose their retirement. All of that had to be in there. How can I make an informed choice if it's not?"

The vote on the job descriptions was pulled from the June 24 meeting after some internal protest and will be formally voted on at the July 8 meeting. The county's largest district, with 54,000 students, faces nearly $29 million in cuts that, it says, are due to declining enrollment and the state's fiscal crisis. The district included $29.5 million in cuts to balance its $487 million budget; the creation of the new part-time jobs passed 3-1, with Palacio as the lone dissenter.

"Technically, these job cuts have already been passed," Palacio says, adding that he will vote "no" again on July 8, when the part-time job descriptions are formalized.

The union representing classified employees combed through the list of job duties to discover the reshuffling of duties.

In the case of the new, part-time "school site technician" position, for example, tasks include managing student-enrollment records, monitoring class size, administering medication to kids, taking blood-sugar-level readings, preparing truancy reports and keeping attendance records—tasks currently handled by full-time school nurses, receptionists and registrars.

"The restructure plan was created to provide more flexibility and efficiency with respect to how students are served," says district spokesperson Angela Burrell.

The list of duties for several "new" positions was the alarm bell that sent several dozen people to district offices in protest last week.

"My job has been renamed," says Monica Bustamante, a data technician at Saddleback High School and 20-year district employee. Her job duties, which include managing records, transcripts and report cards, now fall under the site-technician job. "They've made [the description] so general it even says you have to help a sick kid," she says. "How do they expect us to do all this in 3.75 hours? A lot of us are looking for other jobs because we need our health benefits."

The creation of all-encompassing part-time positions is a sign that layoffs are imminent, says Margie Strike, labor representative with the California School Employees Association, which represents the affected employees. The district, she says, has violated state labor laws by not negotiating with employees before proposing to eliminate their positions.

Officials pulled a similar move late last year, she says, when they created two new part-time positions to replace full-time special-education instructional aides. The new part-time jobs resulted in the gradual layoffs of 177 full-time employees. The union filed an unfair-labor charge with the California Department of Labor against the district June 11, protesting the unusual way the layoffs were handled. The charge is still under investigation.

"Districts are allowed to create new job classifications," Burrell says. "We comply with the law by extending an offer of 'Meet and Confer' to the California State Employees Association."

Strike says the district can create new job classifications when the jobs are different. The problem in the current situation, she says, is that jobs are being duplicated at lesser hours. "No other district in the county is doing anything like this," she says.

Burrell says the district re-created the special-ed positions as part of a plan to "refocus and restructure," as well as cut costs. She says the aides were doing approximately two hours of incidental clerical work every day. To "refocus" the positions, they were split in half and two part-time positions were created to eliminate the clerical component, Burrell says. A four-hour day is the minimum someone would need to work in order to receive health benefits.

Ramon Quintanilla, a 14-year-veteran district special-education instructional aide who was one of the last to receive a layoff notice in the earlier round of job cuts, staged his hunger strike for four days outside district offices last week.

"We're in the classroom working with students," says Quintanilla. "[The district] didn't negotiate with us at all. They've never done something like this." The predicament facing laid-off, longtime employees like Quintanilla: If they choose to apply for the part-time positions, they may lose their retirement or retire without benefits.

Employees are now fearful the same tactics used to oust the special-education aides will be used on them. Although official layoff notices have not been sent out, some employees have been told, unofficially, by their school principals that they will lose their jobs.

"Our principal is one of the few who tells us what's going on," says an 18-year-veteran office assistant at an elementary school who wished to remain anonymous.

Burrell says a total of 481 layoffs, the majority classified positions, were approved with the passage of the budget. A total of 505 "new" part-time positions will be created when the board finalizes its vote July 8, she says. "Laid-off employees will be able to reapply for these positions," she says. "And we were able to rescind 560 of 573 teacher layoffs, which is positive."

However, Palacio, Strike and other employees say they believe the number of classified employees who will lose their jobs may be higher once the final state budget is approved in July and the district revises it one more time.

The union has estimated the number could then reach into the 600 or 700 range, which would be debilitating to schools, students and teachers, says Palacio. "This is about fairness, about respecting our employees. Some people have been here for 20 years. These are the employees who are taxpayers, who are parents in the district, who live here. The way you show them respect is by giving them a good salary and good benefits."

daltan@ocweekly.com

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