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posted: 3/13/2010 12:01 AM

U-46's Torres talks staff cuts

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  • Elgin Area School District U-46 Superintendent Jose Torres talks with Daily Herald staffers in the Fox Valley bureau Friday.

      Elgin Area School District U-46 Superintendent Jose Torres talks with Daily Herald staffers in the Fox Valley bureau Friday.
    Christopher Hankins | Staff Photographer

 
By Kerry Lester

As part of more than $31 million in cuts from next year's budget, hundreds of Elgin Area School District U-46 staff members learned Friday they'll be losing their jobs at the end of the school year.

Those layoffs are to be approved by the school board Monday evening, before pink slips are mailed out Tuesday.

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Superintendent Jose Torres Friday discussed with the Daily Herald how he is grappling with the tough decisions that will affect the livelihoods of more than 5,000 employees and the quality of education U-46 can offer.

Layoffs

Torres said he would not release the number of staff members being let go until Monday, but he did talk about how the district is going about making cuts, just a year after eliminating roughly 350 staff positions.

The education world's term for these layoffs, a reduction in force or RIF, means the district will operate with significantly fewer employees next year. Positions will be restored only if additional money flows in.

"When you have a second year of cuts, you're not going to see the low hanging fruit because that's already been picked," Torres said. "We are over-RIFing to protect ourselves because the state's budget is so uncertain. We plan to bring some staff back, hopefully by the end of the year."

Many departments will see as much as 9 or 10 percent of its staff cut, he said. Of the deep cuts to support personnel, custodians and plant operations, Torres said it is less likely people in those positions will be recalled.

With teacher layoffs, the district has done what it calls a "targeted RIF"- determining how many positions it will need in certain departments, and then cutting in those departments by seniority.

"We look at their teaching certificate," Torres said. "If (a teacher with seniority) is certified to teach social studies even though they've been teaching English, they may bump a less experienced social studies teacher. Certified nurses, too, might have an education certificate along with a nursing certificate. They could bump an elementary teacher."

Academic quality

"It's going to be real difficult," Torres said of maintaining academic quality after so many cuts. "Because of the targeted (layoffs) we know there are some programs that are going to be affected severely.

"A lot of times your new teachers are the ones who have a lot of energy, proving themselves, volunteering to do all sorts of things. We're spending a lot of money on training them. One of the realizations we need to consider is that perhaps it's not a wise use of training dollars to train first-, second- and third-year teachers and not build a program around a rookie because they might not return. ...

"There is no way that we can or would say we won't invest any money on you unless you're tenured. But certainly it might be wise for us to think about some sort of change. The quality is not going to be as high as it has been in the past. We're pushing advanced placement, training teachers for that, and some of the teachers will be walking out the door."

Coming contract

With teachers' current three-year contract set to expire in August, new contract negotiations will begin in early April.

In the hopes of coming to a speedy agreement, both sides have committed to coming to the bargaining table with significantly fewer items than they have in the past.

"Our focus has been to try to negotiate all the financial issues," Torres said. "To try to seal them as quickly as possible. To bring stability to the system and identify recalls and get that all done by the end of the year. If we don't go through an expedited process, we might go through some other things, but we haven't had discussions with the board."

Torres said a pay cut for teachers likely will be a part of that conversation.

Racial bias suit

Filed in 2005, the class-action lawsuit charges that U-46 violated the rights of black and Hispanic students by changing attendance boundaries. It has so far cost the district more than $8.2 million in legal fees.

"It's way too much (money)," Torres said. "Unfortunately, we can't just say, 'Let's not pay our lawyers' and go out on our own. We can't do that. We've had some attempts at settlement in the past. The plaintiffs are not able to give up certain things, and we're not willing to give up control.

"For us it's all about control. Our board believes strongly that they are the ones elected to run this district, and they won't do it with an eighth member, with a consent decree. Now we think that the speediest way to get a resolution is through a trial. We're hopeful that the trial will begin this summer."

His outlook

"The worst thing is that through this budget process, I've had to put things on the table I believe in deeply," Torres said. "Professional development, early childhood programs, more advanced opportunities for students. I'd rather be increasing those rather than decreasing those. But I don't think we can run the (district) with a deficit, unlike the state of Illinois. I'm going to give it my all. I have people around me who come in and give 150 percent every day. We'll get there."

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