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Haywood school workers to see forced time off

At least we have our jobs.

That seems to be the reaction to cost-cutting measures taken last week by Haywood County Schools in response to up to $4 million in cuts from the federal, state and local funding.

More than 200 Haywood County school employees will see their work year shortened, allowing the school system to avoid outright layoffs.

School officials are cutting 12 days out of teacher assistant contracts, trimming assistant principals from an 11.5-month year to only 11 months and taking two weeks salary from food-service workers. Bus drivers are also losing some compensation, namely the bonus they got for perfect attendance and a good driving record.

Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte said he knew this was a tough pill to swallow, but the school system was trying to save jobs by spreading the pain a little, and, he said, the employees seemed to understand that.

“You think that when someone gets their time and their pay cut, they would be upset, but I’ve had several calls saying it seems like it would be a difficult thing to do and it seems like the right thing to do to save as many jobs as you can,” said Nolte.

That’s exactly what Sherri Green thinks. Green is a first-grade assistant at Jonathan Valley Elementary in Maggie Valley. She’s been a teacher assistant for 11 years now, and prior to last week, she and her colleagues were concerned that their jobs would be lost along with state funding.

“It’s certainly not an ideal situation, but we are relieved that we got keep our jobs. I understand the state cuts and how that works, but locally we’re really glad, because they’ve had to make some major adjustments,” said Green.

Nolte said that when they broke the news to staff, some were ready to volunteer their time. But, said Nolte, it’s just not allowed.

“It’s illegal,” said Nolte. “You can’t force someone or expect someone to put in hours that you don’t expect to pay them for.”

Green said that, though she and her compatriots are relieved, the cuts are going to force some into a search for a second job, especially if the lost pay checks become status quo.

“You could tell so many of us were relieved. There were a few tears shed,” said Green “But yes, it is going to be hard, 12 days without pay. To us, that’s over $1,000 to most of us, and that’s a lot of money. We’re relieved but we’re still in that position that, yes, some of us might have to take a second job.”

The cut work hours will save the school system roughly $325,000. It’s not quite enough to cover what they’re missing from local funding, the part of the school’s budget that comes from the county commissioners, allocated out of their annual expenditures.

Nolte said that’s part of the problem: they expected cuts from the state level. That whisper has been coming down from the governor’s office since snow was on the ground. But they weren’t quite ready for the 3 percent local cut, which works out to around $430,000, or the federal cuts that they’re going to face, around $100,000.

When commissioners proposed cutting school funding, County Manager Marty Stamey suggested educators dip into their robust reserves to cover the losses. The school system has a sizeable fund balance. But, said Nolte, they were already planning to use that.

“We’ll definitely be using the EduJobs money [federal funds allocated last year] and some of the fund balance,” said Nolte.

But, he said, they’ve only got the fund balance because they’ve been careful with the money they get. In essence, said Nolte, they’ve been carefully squirreling away in the rainy-day fund, but it’s still not enough.

They haven’t touched teacher positions in the work-time reductions because they can’t; that’s negotiated at a state level.

But Nolte said they’re also trying to stay as far away from the classroom as they can for as long as they can.

“Always, we want to, if we can, look at administrative reduction,” said Nolte.

And the school system is going to lose eight non-classroom positions, seven teacher assistants and 10 teachers, though they’re frozen positions that former employees have left, not been laid off from.

And now, as he has been throughout the recent budget debate, Nolte is warning that only so much cutting can be done without damage ensuing.

“At some point in time, cuts of that magnitude begin to affect quality and service,” said Nolte. “At some point in time, if you cut off enough parts, things don’t work as well as they did before.”

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