Declining enrollment adds to layoffs

Before the budget meeting got underway on Wednesday night, Douglas County School District officials dropped a bombshell: declining enrollment will cause the elimination of about 14 teaching positions for the next school year.

Superintendent Carol Lark said the issue was independent of other budget reductions, and needed clarification.

"There is a lot of controversy, concern and stress in the district," she said.

She said every year the district has to adjust staffing numbers based on enrollment figures. She said previously the district has been able to use attrition to account for declined enrollment. She hoped attrition, staff reductions through retirement and unfilled vacancies, would suffice this time around, but worried the numbers were too great.

Chief Financial Officer Holly Luna painted the grim picture. In fiscal year 2007-08, enrollment dropped 93 students. This year, it dropped 207 students. The projection for next year is a 196-student loss that would lower the district's entire student population to 6,352.

"We're looking at declining enrollment, and therefore a declining need in certificated teachers," Luna said.

The elementary schools would lose two teachers. Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School would lose one teacher, Carson Valley Middle School two, and Whittell High School at least one.

Douglas High School would sustain the biggest hit, with a loss of eight teachers.

Lark said the numbers were difficult to predict, but that notices to affected employees still needed to be sent out.

A call-back process could begin later in the year if circumstances change, but there are no guarantees.

"This is not separate from the budget; the issue feels like the exact same thing," said Douglas High teacher Karen Lamb. "People will still lose their jobs."

Douglas High advanced placement student Kaitlin Babbitt worried the cuts would mean larger class sizes.

"If we cut teachers and combine classes, how will that support learning? How will they be able to work one on one with the kids?" she asked.

Lark said the cuts would not increase class sizes; it would only feel like an increase because of current overstaffing.

"It would certainly be a reduction in electives," said Douglas High technology teacher Jim Meyers. "Cuts to electives would be a travesty to students. If you take away those opportunities, you're cheating students of a well-rounded education."

Douglas Art teacher Christine Groman echoed the concerns of her coworker.

"I have a real concern with what's happening to our programs," she said. "One art teacher would be five sections dropped, a hundred students that would need to be redistributed.

"Fine arts and electives give kids the skills to be problem-solvers. Art is involved in every aspect of our lives. Art is our humanity. It's not enough to do straight academics."

Douglas High senior Tara Paiement said the only reason some kids come to school is for their elective classes.

"Kids have electives and find their place," she said. "If you don't have them, the drop-out rate will go higher."

First-year Pau-Wa-Lu teacher Adam Johnson was worried cutting a new batch of teachers would create negative consequences in the long run.

"What will promote teachers to this Valley if the district is overstaffed each year and projections change?" he said. "People come here and they are excited to stay here and then they get RIF'd (reduction in force)," Johnson said.

The elimination of 14 teachers would save the district about $910,000. But school board members were still asked to cut about $2.8 million from next year's budget.

Board members actually cut $2.56 million after voting to take transportation funding for out-of-area athletic trips and field trips, a reduction in counselor contract days, and two gifted and talented program positions off the chopping block.

The budget hearing lasted more than six hours with hundreds of people coming in and out of the Douglas High School library. The $2.56 million worth of savings came from more than 30 items.

Left on the list was a measure to convert a vice principal position at Whittell High School into an athletic director position, for a savings of $32,000.

"We rely on that administrator support," said Whittell teacher Martha Williams. "Keep in mind this is a middle school as much as a high school."

Middle school students at the Lake were absorbed into Whittell after the closure of Kingsbury Middle School last year. Board members requested that Whittell staff and district officials be given some time to find the savings another way if possible, but that the overall dollar amount of the cut remain the same.

Classified and support staff throughout the district took significant hits.

One aide will be eliminated from the district's new ASPIRE alternative education program, and a part-time library aide at the high school will be eliminated.

Douglas High librarian Jim Polka said he will struggle to handle the entire library without an aide.

"We have 1,462 students who all use the library and who all take English and history and must write term papers," Polka said.

Board members suggested that volunteers from the community or students themselves take the place of the aide.

For a savings of $113,500, the district is cutting three elementary school computer technicians. Remaining technicians will have to rotate between schools.

"The district has made a huge investment in technology, and it will be a huge waste if there is not tech support on-site," argued Minden Elementary computer tech Sherry Lugone.

The custodial division sustained the largest cut, with the elimination of five full-time positions.

"Not only do these people clean our buildings and scrub our toilets, but they are mentors, friends and role models to our children, and losing five of them will be a huge disservice," said Douglas High teacher Kerry Stack.

The district is restructuring the custodial division under a new program called Pro-Cleaning. The program increases the area one custodian must cover, resulting in the layoffs. It also creates a supervisor position to oversee all site operations.

Board member Randy Green said restructuring should be left up to the head custodians of each school.

"Mr. Green is right," said Gardnerville Elementary head custodian Joe Roybal. "We should have the opportunity to get together and figure it out."

But board members moved forward with the cuts, as they did with the reduction of employee hours at the district's warehouse.

"I'm just sad," said warehouse manager Rob Gitthens. "This affects people and their families. I'm so proud of what we've done out there and the service we provide for the district."

Board members constantly reminded the audience that there is the possibility of revision depending on how the state budget is worked out in the Legislature. The district must finalize its budget by May, but may make modifications in the future.

Grandmother Jacqueline Brown received applause trying to sum up the collective feeling in the room.

"How it saddens my heart," she said through tears. "The government just used our tax dollars to bail out the banks and auto industry, but the biggest disaster will be cutting education for our children."


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