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Layoffs hit home for Head Start

POSTED May 6, 2011 9:10 p.m.

The Turlock Unified School District officially laid off eight Head Start preschool teacher aides and four family service workers at Wakefield, Osborn and Cunningham sites on Friday.

Head Start is a free, federally-funded program that serves low-income or at-risk children ages three to five years old. Nearly 160 children are served through Head Start programs in Turlock.

Unlike certified employees (teachers), aides and service workers (classified employees) receive a one-time, hand delivered layoff notice.

According to TUSD Human Resource Director Heidi Lawler, the layoffs are part of a legal process in which TUSD must layoff the employees and then negotiate with their union, the California School Employees Association (CSEA).

The layoff came as a surprise to Cunningham aide Thelma Tovar.

“I didn’t know to expect anything like this, I thought they were just going to ask us to take a pay cut,” she explained while tears streamed down her face just moments after being notified of the bad news.

The layoff notice was given during school hours, and after receiving the bad news, she returned to her students. Her layoff, along with her fellow employees will be effective June 30.

Bobbie Avena, a parent at Head Start, was shocked at the way the news was delivered.

“It’s not right for them to tell them like that. I don’t like seeing my children’s teachers crying,” she said.

On Tuesday, the TUSD Board of Trustees passed a resolution that authorized the layoff during their regular board meeting. Board President Frank Lima explained that funding for Head Start, which comes from the federal government, had become nearly suffocated in salary and benefits for teachers, aides and support staff.

Currently, 97 percent of funding for Head Start goes directly to teachers, aides and support staff salaries and benefits.

“This isn’t something that just occurred overnight. When the new Head Start director (Julie Huerta) started two years ago she and the district financial services department discovered the imbalance and the board was responding to that imbalance,” said Lawler. “Typically, the best practice is to have salaries and benefits around 85 percent; the board’s goal is 89 percent of total funding.

“No one wants people to lose their job, it’s a very difficult and upsetting environment right now, but we have to be responsible for our students and remain fiscally sound,” said Lawler.

In the coming weeks and months the CSEA and TUSD Officials will continue negotiations.

“We are in negotiations now and we are on top of the situation. Ultimately, they (aides and service workers) will have the choice of accepting reductions in salary or accepting the layoff,” said CSEA Labor Relations Representative Kyle Harvey.

Funding for Head Start is in no way tied to the state budget crisis in California. The TUSD decided to make the cuts as a way to free up money for the program itself.

“The program is too important to risk,” Lima said. “(Head Start) is a great program and it helps prepare less advantaged kids for kindergarten.”

Harvey is concerned the cuts will negatively affect the children and their families.

“This isn’t a luxury item, it’s what is right and it is what we have to do, these are the neediest kids. We have to figure out how to save these workers,” he said.

Currently, family service workers perform duties 200 days a year. TUSD wants to reduce that number to 176 days a year and reduce daily workload from eight to six hours.

“They really help families meet their needs and find out how to help each individual family. They need extra time to sign families up before the school year and time to sign families up after the school year for the following year,” explained Harvey.

Cunningham Head Start parents plan to express their outrage at the cuts by picketing outside the school on Wednesday and Friday.

“My son went to Head Start at Cunningham and now he is in the 5th grade GATE class. Head Start increases the graduation rate and gets the kids ready for kindergarten and first grade,” said Avena.

To contact Jonathan McCorkell, e-mail jmccorkell@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2015.

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