Williams Unified cuts teachers to close budget gap

Williams Elementary School paraeducators stand united at last Thursday's school board meeting in an effort to save thier jobs and keep aides in the classroom.

Parents threaten to remove students and recall entire board

The Williams Unified School District Board of Trustees last Thursday cut its music, physical education, and transitional kindergarten programs at the elementary school, along with all 12 classroom aides, despite a bitter protest from parents, who threatened to remove their children from school and place them in neighboring school districts.

Parents also shouted threats to recall the school board, who voted 5-0 to cut staff in order to reduce an estimated $700,000 budget deficit over a two-year period. A recall is a procedure by which voters can remove their elected officials from office before their terms have ended.

The terms of Board President Sylvia Vaca and Trustee Kelly Lewis expire Dec. 6, 2018. The terms of trustees Yareli Mora, George Simmons, and Rosa Orozco-Lopez expire on Dec. 10, 2020.

“I have a real problem with all these programs being cut,” Williams parent Troy Oliver told the school board at the Dec. 16 meeting. “I don’t know why it is these programs that are being cut, but it has come to a point that (while) it is convenient for me that my kid comes home from school from a quarter mile away, I’m about ready to jerk my kids out of school to go 10 minutes three different ways.”

Parents admitted to hearing rumors that the school board actually has the money to avoid cutting programs, but are doing so in retaliation against teachers for threating to strike if they didn’t get a pay increase. Parents said they also heard that the school board wanted to deliberately cut the elementary school in order to expand programs at the high school.
School officials, however, said it is just about dollars and cents, and needing to spend less money than they received.

In her first interim budget report, Mechele Coombs, director of fiscal services and accountability, reiterated at Thursday’s meeting what Superintendent Edgar Lampkin said at a public workshop on Nov. 28.

“We are in deficit spending,” Coombs said. “Cuts have to be made.”

Coombs said a $400,000 deficit exists in the current year after adjusting the budget for 23 fewer students, a retroactive settlement with teachers, retaining paraeducators that had previously been eliminated from the budget, and other changes in revenue and expenditures.

Coombs said the school board approved a $15,961,445 spending plan based on total revenue, which has now ballooned to $16,356,048.

In her multi-year projections, Coombs also anticipates an approximate $300,000 deficit next year, largely from ongoing cost of living increases, increases in public employee benefits, and the new 2018 state law that expands the Classified Employee’s Union to include part-time employees like playground helpers.

Coombs said employer rates for the California Public Employee Retirement System increases from 15.5 percent for the 2017-18 school year, to 18.1 percent for 2018-19, and to 20.8 percent for 2019-20. The employer rates for the California State Teachers Retirement System jumps from 14.4 percent in 2017-18, to 16.3 percent in 2018-19, to 18.1 percent in 2019-20.

Superintendent Edgar Lampkin said that while the cuts are painful, cuts have to be made.
“We have a fiduciary duty to ensure fiscal stability,” he said. “That is the fiduciary duty on the part of the board, myself as superintendent, and our fiscal services director. That is why you guys hired us…to do the job that needs to be done to ensure fiscal stability.”
Parents, teachers, and paraeducators, who want the school board to dip into reserves, all made a desperate plea to the school board to keep the much-loved programs.

Kindergarten teacher Keri Lovelady agreed that even if spending had to be reduced, it should not be just the elementary school that has to make the sacrifice and absorb all the cuts.

Despite her arguments, the school board never answered why they could not look elsewhere for reductions, and stuck to the cuts that had been recommended at last month’s workshop.

Although reasons for the budget deficit had been discussed in open meetings since June, parents still insisted they only get the runaround from officials when it comes to the district’s finances.

Parents and teachers said part of the problem is that school officials appear to be listening, but do not hear what they are saying.

School officials, on the other hand, said parents and teachers speak, but they refuse to listen.

During Thursday’s two-hour meeting, Vaca was shouted down when she tried to reply to a question asked by a speaker, and the audience shouted down both Vaca and Simmons when they tried to comment about their decisions.

Vaca, through tears, tried to explain why her child will remain at Williams Unified despite difficult cuts that affect the schools and community.

“I believe in what we are doing,” she said. “I truly and 100 percent respect our teachers and believe in our teachers, and I will entrust my child with them.”

Although interrupted, Vaca attempted to explain that she was trying to make decisions that were sound, despite how difficult they were to make.

Simmons said he would hold Lampkin accountable to put effective systems and programs in place to improve or increase services for students in physical education, music early childhood development.

“I’ve been on that since I’ve been here,” Simmons said.

He, too, was shouted down when he tried to explain that the board had legal obligations to balance the budget. ■