Central Valley

Turlock Unified avoids budget-related pink slips

TURLOCK -- For the second straight year, the Turlock Unified School District managed to get through a tough budget process without layoffs. But even though nobody will lose a job because of the budget, final answers have yet to be determined.

Negotiations between the district and its teachers union have reached an impasse; representatives of both sides will meet soon with a mediator. Negotiations with two other unions that represent employees continue, and Superintendent Sonny DaMarto said he is hopeful both sides in those discussions can reach an agreement.

The teachers and the district are at a standoff over a 2 percent pay cut the district wants teachers to take. Teachers would rather see furloughs than a pay cut; the school board steadfastly maintains it doesn't want to take any teaching days out of the school year.

"We feel what we're asking is very reasonable," DaMarto said. "We're also going to be deficit spending by $4 million this year, and we are projected to deficit spend by another $3 million next year and the year after."

Medeiros fifth-grade teacher Jennifer Collins, the chief negotiator for the union, disagrees.

"We would like some flexibility," she said, adding that teachers took a 3 percent cut last year. The district cut $12 million over two years through golden-handshake retirement agreements and districtwide salary reductions, among other measures. The district used reserves and federal stimulus money to fill some of the holes left by the state.

Collins said the district could use more of its $11 million reserve this year to plug the gaps.

"If we can make it through a year without making cuts, let's look at the following year," she said. "All they're doing is compounding cut after cut after cut."

She also pointed out that other districts are resorting to furloughs. Modesto City Schools, for instance, trimmed five days from its calendar, bringing instructional days to 175.

Both sides agree on one area: It's vital to avoid layoffs. The school board, in a special meeting this week, rescinded most of the 100 or so layoff notices it issued earlier this year. The district is laying off four teachers, but that's related to declining enrollment and not to budget concerns, DaMarto said.

"These are just classes that have gone away," he said. They include architecture and an "opportunity" class, which helps students catch up in various subjects.

Layoffs 'affect the community'

Mass layoffs impact more than just the district and its students, DaMarto said.

"We have an 18 percent unemployment rate," he said. "We're the largest employer in Turlock. Layoffs not only affect the education and kind of services we're able to provide to students, they affect the community as a whole."

Collins said she's still optimistic the district and the teachers will sort through their differences.

"I know we're not alone, it's a budget crisis everywhere," she said. "I think it's just the way it's been presented."

And despite the challenges, "I love teaching. I love my job," Collins said. "I love my students. I have a great time."

Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at pguerra@modbee.com or 578-2343.