Worry simmers at Bo-Stin over private contractors

10/03/2019

The hiring of independent contractors to fill vacancies in enrichment programs in the Bolinas-Stinson Union School District has prompted concern from parents and unionized staff over both hiring practices and the programs’ long-term vitality. Despite their need to reduce expenditures—the district is on notice for deficit spending—trustees emphasized at a public meeting last week that they are committed to maintaining district employees. 

Last month, the union that represents the district’s classified staff wrote to the board that they had “watched with concern and alarm as our district has replaced union workers with independent contractors. In the process, hours and benefits are cut and people’s jobs have disappeared.” 

Last spring saw the retirement of Don Jolley, who taught math, science and dance in the middle school, and Annie Densmore, the music teacher. The district replaced Mr. Jolley with a new certificated teacher for math and science and a contractor who teaches salsa. Ms. Densmore’s position was filled part-time by a local musician on a contractual basis. An independent contractor replaced a technology support staff member who resigned last fall, and another was hired this year to establish a new Spanish program. 

Although the district encouraged some of the retirements as a cost-saving measure, other resignations have made staffing the school a juggling act for Superintendent John Carroll.

Three other employees have noticed their intent to leave within the year—including the district’s resource specialist, the physical education teacher and the chief business officer—further stressing the union’s concerns about hiring practices. 

“The corporations that find it expedient and inexpensive to hire contractors instead of employees, providing few or no benefits and no job security are the very reason that workers both past and present realized that banding together and organizing into unions was essential,” the union wrote. 

The board held a special meeting last Tuesday morning, which included a discussion of the union’s letter as well as aspects of the district’s strategic plan related to the role of union-versus-contractor roles and full-time versus part-time positions. 

At the meeting, trustees clarified that the decision to replace some employees with independent contractors is not reflective of a new policy. In some cases, they said, it has been a temporary fix. (The district also created a new full-time certificated teaching position to meet the requirements of new grade configurations, they pointed out.) 

Trustees said they would prioritize maintaining existing programming and full-time positions, and they shot down a proposal from Mr. Carroll to cut the physical education position from 30 hours to 25 hours a week, which he said would save the district money in health benefits.

“It’s not just what you pay,” trustee Georgia Woods said. “It’s politics. It’s about the morale of the people who work here. In that, it’s super not worth it.” 

Ms. Woods directed Principal Michelle Stephens to look for ways to increase staff to full time if they are willing to wear multiple hats.  

Mr. Carroll pointed out that since he started working in the district in 2014, there has been a net gain in employees: one certificated and three classified positions. “It is definitely not my goal to contract out their work,” he told the Light.  

Nevertheless, he has been under some pressure to downsize. The Marin County Office of Education informed the board this spring that the district was considered “qualified,” meaning it might not meet its financial obligations for the current or next year based on its budget.

Mr. Carroll told the board earlier this year that the best way to address the district’s deficit—which in May totaled $270,000—was by attrition: reconsidering positions when they are vacated and rehiring at lower pay rates. 

Two certificated staff—Ms. Densmore and the resource specialist, Michelle Cattell—accepted retirement incentives the district negotiated with their union last year. (Mr. Jolley had a separate agreement.)

The retirements have improved the district’s bottom line: Mr. Carroll said he anticipates the district will be in the black by the end of the year. Last school year was the sixth school year in the past seven years—with the exception of 2016-2017—that the district operated at a deficit.

On Tuesday, parents expressed concern about the effect of the current staffing on the school’s programs, particularly music. 

“We believe that music education is an integral part of the scholastic curriculum and that the absence of a dedicated music room for instruction and to house the school’s collection of instruments is a loss for our students,” Melinda Stone read from a petition signed by nearly 30 parents. (Under new configurations, one class occupies the former music room this year.) “We also recognize that hiring a new certified music education instructor who is trained in applying a diverse curriculum to multiple age groups is a priority.”

In response, the board members emphasized that eliminating music was not on the table, and that the current setup was temporary. As part of their longer-term strategic planning effort, they also asked the superintendent and principal to propose several reconfigurations of enrichment programs that could make them both more cost-efficient and effective. 

Introducing younger grades to a range of programs and then allowing the older grades to select preferences was an intriguing approach for several board members and parents. Under the current system, each grade engages in every enrichment program.