Emotionally draining school board meeting ends in $7M in cuts

Alma Quintana, principal of the Adult Education school, left,

In a four-hour study session that included a tearful monologue
and a heated public confrontation, school trustees cut nearly 70
teaching positions.
In a four-hour study session that included a tearful monologue and a heated public confrontation, school trustees cut nearly 70 teaching positions.

During the session, Gilroy Unified School District trustees pored over a list of about 20 possible budget cuts totaling nearly $7 million, then agreed to enact nearly every one. These measures included cutting about 70 teaching positions, closing the Community Day School, which serves troubled youth, increasing class sizes, freezing salaries and reducing the district’s reserve fund. The district’s Adult Education school, which serves about 1,000 students, was the only program on the chopping block that emerged unscathed.

The meeting kicked off with several dozen adult students taking the microphone to support their school. Accompanied by fellow students holding signs that read “Please don’t take our education” and “Save Adult Ed,” one female student sobbed through a five-minute speech in Spanish.

“Please do not take away my opportunity to learn and to help my children,” the woman said, according to Adult Education Principal Alma Quintana, who was translating.

Board President Francisco Dominguez was absent for family reasons and at times trustee Denise Apuzzo, who ran the meeting, sounded like an auctioneer rattling off possible cuts.

After nearly an hour of listening to student testimonials and deliberating on Adult Education, the board voted against cutting that program – which would have saved $217,000, according to district figures – with the intent to make the program more self-sustaining in the future.

“The value of this program is not just for the parents and the people taking the classes,” Apuzzo said. “The value is it pays off for our children. If parents can help children with their homework, if parents can learn to speak English, if parents can get a decent job – all of that helps.”

Community Day School, which serves about 20 at-risk students who have been expelled from Gilroy schools, and the majority of the district’s summer school offerings, weren’t so lucky. Eliminating the two programs will save $450,000.

Also caught in the downsizing were about 40 teachers, who will likely receive layoff notices soon. Although trustees cut nearly 70 positions by tentatively increasing class sizes, about 30 teachers already planned to retire or resign this year , Superintendent Deborah Flores said.

Unless the district is able to negotiate pay cuts and a wage freeze with the teachers union, trustees will increase kindergarten through third grade class sizes to 28 students and boost class sizes from fourth through 12th grades by two students per class. That would mean as many as 36 students in high school classrooms, a number parents and students said some classes have already reached.

Trustees initially voted against increasing class sizes at the upper grades and decided to keep the lower grades at a 26-to-1 ratio. But after realizing their decision left the district more than $1 million in debt, they voted again, this time to increase all class sizes and send out layoff notices if negotiations with the teachers union fall through.

“Layoffs would protect the district in the event that we’re not able to negotiate this second page,” Flores said, gesturing to a piece of paper that listed furloughs, pay cuts and wage freezes.

Although the teachers union proposed cutting four days from the school year, trustees didn’t address that option at length during the study session. The state allows districts to save money by temporarily shaving five days from the school year while continuing to receive compensation from the state for 180 days of instruction. The savings could be put toward maintaining current class sizes, teachers said.

“One hundred seventy-six days of smaller class sizes will benefit the students more than 180 days of larger classrooms,” said Vince Oberst, a third grade teacher at Glen View Elementary School and a member of the Gilroy teachers union negotiating team whose words were followed by hearty applause. “This plan offers nearly $1 million annually of teacher salaries to help the district balance the budget.”

Gilroy Teachers Association President Michelle Nelson said she wondered why the district didn’t incorporate the teachers’ suggestion into their cuts.

“They’d rather us work and take a pay cut,” Nelson said.

Four fewer school days would still constitute a pay cut but it would be the same pay per day, she said.

Nelson referred to Gilroy teachers’ ranking on a pay scale comparing teacher salaries countywide in her criticism of trustees’ proposed pay cut: “When we’re already 30 out of 33, how much more do they want us to bleed?”

Squeezing 180 days of instruction into 176 will be a challenge, but “the students will not be hurt academically by having four fewer days,” she said, adding that the union’s proposal is not an admission that teachers can do 180 days of work in 176 permanently. “You can do something that’s very difficult for a short period of time but when you sustain it, it doesn’t work anymore. This is an emergency situation.”

Nelson also suggested administrators log their miles traveled instead of receiving regular stipends.

At the meeting, one teacher’s suggestion produced a fiery outburst.

“I really feel uncomfortable asking you to eliminate someone’s job but I think it needs to be considered,” said Jonathan Bass, a teacher at Antonio Del Buono Elementary School.

Bass cleared this throat, then suggested the board eliminate Director of Student Assessment Jim Pisano’s position. Bass said “a lot of turmoil” has emerged from that office in the past year surrounding the district’s assessment measure, suggesting measures produced by the district office might not be the most effective way to measure classroom achievement. The position could be eliminated without affecting student achievement, he said. His comments were followed by applause.

As Bass left the podium and went into the lobby, Pisano stormed after him, followed by several administrators. There, Pisano confronted Bass, and meeting attendees who were asked to watch the meeting on a television in the lobby said administrators had to step between the men.

Bass isn’t the first district employee to suggest eliminating management positions. In a list of ideas, the district’s classified employees suggested eliminating several managers and replacing them with lead staff with stipend pay.

Sports also came under fire when Gilroy High School junior Michael Saccone asked why they were absent from the list of cuts.

“Instead of addressing sports we’re damaging our core education,” he said.

Trustees said they were not in favor of eliminating or reducing sports offerings.

At the next meeting on March 4, trustees will finalize their decisions and authorize Flores to send out layoff notices by March 15.

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