West Contra Costa Unified students, parents and staff members urged the school board not to cut teacher and assistant principal positions during the Feb. 26 meeting. (Photo by Theresa Harrington/EdSource)

Facing a deficit of $47.8 million over the next two years, the West Contra Costa Unified school board on Wednesday voted 4-1 to eliminate 300 positions next year to save $22 million. But it hopes to rescind many of the layoffs in May if it is able to reach an agreement with unions for alternative cost-saving measures.

These positions include about 230 teachers, who are expected to receive layoff notices next week. The district — which includes Richmond and surrounding communities — is negotiating with unions to come up with other ways to reduce expenditures, such as increasing class sizes for one year and eliminating some teacher stipends for extra work or special qualifications.

All five board members expressed sorrow about the layoffs and board member Mister Phillips voted against them because he had too many unanswered questions about how the district would continue to operate with staff cuts that include the elimination of the chief academic officer and director of charter school oversight positions. Other board members told Superintendent Matthew Duffy and Tony Wold, the associate superintendent for business services, that they wanted to see a new organizational chart explaining who would take on critical responsibilities in the district in light of the planned cuts.

“You’d better make this worth it and successful, and do what you can to put these pieces back together,” board member Consuelo Lara told Duffy and Wold. “This is on you. I’m holding you accountable for this.”

Layoffs for teachers will be decided based on seniority and credentials. The board voted to eliminate the positions of 159 elementary school teachers and 72 teachers of subjects including social studies, English, physical education, math, science, art, music and foreign languages.

The cuts approved Wednesday (Feb. 26) are on top of $6 million in cuts to contracts with outside consultants and $2 million in direct funding to school sites the board approved Feb. 12. Besides laying off teachers, the job cuts include eliminating 13 central office directors or other high-level administrators, seven central office program coordinators, one principal, 25 assistant principals and vice principals, 13 counselors, three psychologists, three instructional specialists and one position each in maintenance, business and public service.

These cuts do not include expected cuts of classified non-teaching positions, who must be notified in April of layoffs, Wold told EdSource. He was unsure how many classified positions could also be affected, saying he hoped the number could be reduced through negotiations.

Board member Mister Phillips issued a statement earlier this month saying that he opposed laying off counselors or elementary vice principals and instead favored a pay freeze. But a teachers’ union survey found that teachers opposed this idea.

Teachers at Helms Middle School in San Pablo felt so strongly about maintaining hard-fought raises that they created a petition against pay cuts, noting that pay raises already approved by the board are set to go into effect in July and that some schools such as Kennedy High in Richmond are already having trouble attracting teachers to fill vacant positions.

The district canceled a planned teacher recruitment fair recently, as news of impending layoffs spread. But Wold said some teachers interested in jobs did contact the district and it is possible some teachers may need to be hired for difficult to fill positions such as special education. He assured the board on Wednesday that no special education positions were being cut.

To help plan for layoffs, employees who notified the district that they intend to leave at the end of the school year were offered bonuses. Wold told EdSource he wasn’t sure how many of these notifications the district received, but said they would help lower the number of layoff notices the district will need to send out.

In a statement released Tuesday (Feb. 25) , Phillips said it is important to remember that these positions are filled by people, who are integral to the school district. “Families pick schools, stay at schools, and/or leave schools largely because of the people who work in them,” he said.

Board member Tom Panas said he worried that some low-income schools would be hit harder by the cuts than more affluent schools, in part because they have more new teachers and also are served by district-funded administrators. He estimated that some of these schools could lose up to 10 teachers and asked Duffy to consider an equity-based formula for redistributing school funding after the cuts are made.

Duffy issued a statement earlier this month letting the community know about upcoming layoff notices for teachers as well as for assistant principals and some other administrators who oversee teachers. He said the district would maintain a principal at every school and hoped to staff each comprehensive high school with at least two assistant principals and each comprehensive middle school with at least one assistant principal.

“We are still investigating the administrative staffing ratios at the elementary and K-8 schools,” he said, adding that the district hoped to minimize impacts on students’ education. “We will get through this together and will remain committed to providing the best possible services to all of our communities while we lobby the state of California to appropriately fund public education.”

The district’s teachers union is collecting signatures to get a proposed “Schools and Communities First” initiative on the November ballot that could provide billions of dollars to California schools in the future. Many districts, including West Contra Costa, are hoping voters will approve the measure, which could help alleviate the need to cut more money out of the 2021-22 budget.

West Contra Costa is one of 38 districts that adopted a “qualified” three-year budget in December, meaning that it may not be able to pay all of its bills through 2021-22 unless it makes cuts. The board has already agreed to cover a part of its deficit this year and next year by using a special reserve fund to cover its retiree benefits cost of $15.8 million annually. But this will deplete that reserve fund and force the district to cut another $15.8 million in 2021-22 to help cover its ongoing costs.

The district’s budget problems are the result of several factors, including costs for operations, special education and employee pensions rising faster than state and other revenues. It already used up its undesignated reserve funds to cover this year’s deficit and must maintain a 3 percent reserve to stay solvent.

But the district also got off course financially over the past few years in part due to high turnover in its finance department, which is responsible for tracking expenditures and projecting future costs and revenues. Wold, who is the fourth chief business official in four years, has been working with the Contra Costa County Office of Education and Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team, or FCMAT — a state agency that helps districts in fiscal distress — to implement best practices and fiscal controls to prevent the district from overspending in the future.

* Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments this year in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the most urgent challenges facing many urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.

Story originally published by EdSource.