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Windham Northeast school district may face layoffs

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BELLOWS FALLS — There's more economic fallout coming from the coronavirus pandemic in the local school system.

The Windham Northeast Supervisory Union approved a process that could lead to the layoff of the schools' support staff after 30 days, given the coronavirus pandemic which resulted in the schools being closed since March 16.

In a meeting held via Zoom video-conferencing Wednesday evening, the board discussed the matter in closed-door session, and then came out and voted 5-2 to establish a committee to carry out any layoffs after the official 30-day notice period expires.

Even if support staff is laid off, the board voted to continue to pay 100 percent of the support staff's health insurance. Currently the board pays only about 82 percent of the cost of health insurance.

The supervisory union includes schools in Rockingham, Westminster, and Grafton and Athens.

Board Chairman David M. Clark of Westminster West said after the meeting the various school board members who attended the session "argued" during the executive session, and came out into public session to continue their argument.

"It's abundantly clear there's a massive economic collapse occurring," Clark said. "It may lead to a cash flow problem even for the schools."

He said the school board felt that members of the support staff who are not working should not be paid, although the boards should continue their health benefits while they are on unemployment. He said some support staff are anxious and not working.

He said there is a belief that the sooner the support staff members are laid off, the more they can receive in unemployement benefits, on average, since support staff aren't paid over the summer months.

"The sooner the paras become eligible, the bigger benefits they will receive," he said. In contrast, he said the teachers' collective bargaining unit prohibits layoffs.

Voting for the plan was Deborah Wright and Rick Holloway, both of Rockingham, Fine of Athens, and Mollie Banik and Cheryl Charles, both of Westminster.

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Voting against the motion were member Priscilla Lambert of Rockingham and Jessica Westclark of Grafton. New board member Jason Terry of Rockingham abstained. Clark said, as chairman, he only votes in the event of a tie.

Lambert, a retired teacher from BFUHS who was heavily involved in the teachers' union grievance team, argued strongly against any layoffs, saying that the argument that the support staff would be eligible for increased benefits wasn't accurate.

Terry also questioned why the paraprofessionals should be laid off, noting that earlier in the meeting the board gave Superintendent Christopher Pratt "a nice bump" in salary.

Pratt received a new three-year contract, Clark said, with an average $5,000 a year increase, which at the end of three years would bring him to $140,000.

According to the motion, Clark and the chairman of all the individual school boards, along with Pratt, would form a committee and meet to discuss each individual layoff, and that any layoff in that school would have to be approved by the chairman of that school's board.

Lily Hart, a teacher at Bellows Falls Union High School, and a member of the four-member ad-hoc grievance committee that represents the unionized teachers and support staff, said the union was already filing grievances on some issues dealing with attendance, since Pratt has required those not coming to work to provide a doctor's note. That could be an invasion of privacy, she said.

Hart said there is currently a poor system of taking attendance, leading to confusion.

Hart said other members of the ad hoc committee believe that if the support staff is laid off, they will never return to work in the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union out of a sense of betrayal. She estimated there were about 70 support staff at the various schools.

"I can't speak to the legality of the situation, but it certainly doesn't seem fair at a time of crisis, when the governor has directed everyone to stay inside for the safety of all. This action by the Board adds an unreasonable level of uncertainty to the already stressful situation for a large number of dedicated district employees," she wrote in an email Thursday.

Hart said she was told by a fellow member that "'the likelihood that employees would return by the end of the pandemic is slim to none because their commitment to our students and the community would be fractured, if not shattered; especially during a time where we are supposed to come together to support each other to our best capacity.'"

Clark said the board started the discussion with a suggested resolution drafted by its attorney, Pietro Lynn of Burlington, and then had board member Stephen Fine of Athens, who is an attorney, rewrite the motion. The board later added the health insurance provision, Clark said.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 556-2147.


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