Ashland school employees feel pain of forced reduction

ASHLAND — More employees began feeling the anguish of the Ashland School District's budget cuts when teachers' aides lined up Tuesday to vie for their jobs.

One teacher's aide was laid off, while 52 others lost hours — some seeing their work-week shrink to two hours. Scores of teachers' aides will have to change schools next year as a result.

Those with the most seniority were given first choice for the available positions and hours.

"It's really demoralizing," said teacher's aide Jackie Hassell, of Bellview Elementary School, as she waited at district office on Siskiyou Boulevard for her turn to choose a placement and hours.

The reductions equaled just an estimated $194,000 out of the $4.3 million deficit the Ashland district is projected to face next school year because of losses in state funding and the ripple effect of the global recession, said Ashland schools Superintendent Juli Di Chiro.

On Monday night, the Ashland School Board also put the final stamp on the reductions that will snatch jobs away from seven teachers and an administrator and hours away from four other teachers. Those employees were notified of the layoffs and hour reductions about two weeks ago.

"We knew we had significant reductions to do and given this economy, I felt the only benefit I could give folks was early notice because I can't offer them much hope about being hired back," Di Chiro said. "These are all valuable employees we hate to lose, but advanced time is the only gift I can give them. It's all very tough."

Instead of laying off more aides and giving the remainder more hours, the district decided to keep as many aides as possible primarily to help with supervision, especially during recess and lunchtime, Di Chiro said.

Some of the aides' hours were reduced to as little as two hours a day, and many lost their district-provided health insurance benefits as a result.

Initially, the superintendent had planned on assigning hours according to seniority.

"Some said they would prefer to stay at their school and work less hours, so they asked us to do it this way," Di Chiro said. "This gives more empowerment to the employees to make a choice."

Teachers' aides waited in a conference room Tuesday, in some cases for hours, until they were called to a private office to make their choices. One aide said she had only been given 24 hours of notice. Others said they learned of the decision on Friday.

"None of this is personal," said Karen Hobbs, a special education teacher's aide at Bellview. "I was the one of the last ones to be hired; therefore, I won't have many choices when I go in there."

Hobbs ended up losing her full-time position at Bellview. Next year, she will work in a regular education classroom for only three hours a day.

She, her husband and their three children, who moved to the United States from the United Kingdom, will lose the health insurance they received through the district.

She said teachers' aides with no idea of what's involved in special education could have been offered her position for which she received training in physical restraint, autism and crisis intervention.

"I'm concerned the positions are being treated as interchangeable," she said. "The children are rewarding to work with, but they have a lot of emotional and behavioral needs that can be very difficult to work with."

Special education, regular education and library teachers' aides all have the same job classification under the employee contract. As a result, they cannot be treated differently during cuts under the contract and under law, Di Chiro said.

"I think the cuts are going to be a huge impact on classes," Hassell said, noting that many class sizes would swell by 10 students next year.

Parents echoed their worry about how the elimination of hours and teacher's aide positions would affect instruction.

Pauline Black, a John Muir parent, said parents should have been consulted about the decision in advance, and teachers' aides should have been allowed more time to decide on their jobs for next year.

During an impromptu meeting with concerned parents Tuesday, Michelle Zundel, Ashland education director, was frank about the cuts.

"The fact of the matter is there isn't a decision we have to make right now that doesn't conflict with all of our values about education," Zundel said.

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