Schools could lose 35 teachers

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  • Some members of the Nassau Teachers Union say parents who decided to allow their children to attend a virtual school instead of Nassau Count School District classrooms have contributed to the district's $8 million shortfall in state funding. METRO CREATIVE CONNECTION
    Some members of the Nassau Teachers Union say parents who decided to allow their children to attend a virtual school instead of Nassau Count School District classrooms have contributed to the district's $8 million shortfall in state funding. METRO CREATIVE CONNECTION
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At a bargaining session between the Nassau Teachers Association and representatives of the Nassau County School District, district officials told the union it will begin reducing the number of teachers in the district with “laser focus,” as the union wants to ask parents to reconsider enrolling their children in Florida Virtual.

Both NTA and the Nassau Educational Support Personnel Association, the union representing bus drivers, food workers, and other essential workers in the district, gave a laundry list of cost-cutting ideas they want the district to enlist before cutting personnel.

Schools Superintendent Dr. Kathy Burns told the Nassau County School Board last week that the district is facing a shortfall of more than $8 million in state funding due to more than 1,000 students not showing up as expected for the new school year that began Aug. 24. Funding from the Florida Department of Education is $7,775 per student. The school district also receives funding via other sources, including property taxes. It has not yet been determined where all the missing students are, but some are being home schooled while others have enrolled in Florida Virtual or left the district for private schools, district representatives said.

Florida Virtual was one of three options available to students for the 2020-21 school year, along with brick and mortar classes and distance learning, which allows students to remotely participate in their classrooms in the district’s schools.

Leonard Dietzen III, a Tallahassee-based attorney, represented the district at a bargaining session last week. Dietzen, who specializes in labor law involving public sector employees, said the largest single expense in the district’s budget is personnel, at 85% of the budget, so that is where a reduction in expenses will be made. He added the cuts would begin with teachers who are in a probationary period and at the schools that have lost the most students. Teachers are “probationary” during their first year of employment and can be dismissed without cause or resign without any breach of their union contract.

Dietzen said the district will look at moving personnel around to “other places where maybe there is a need,” and warned the unions that the changes are imminent: “We are cognizant that kids fall in love with their teachers right away, so that’s why we are not going to do this three months from now.”

Dietzen estimated the cuts will involve approximately 35 teachers in the first phase of a plan to deal with the shortfall. The second phase could include more cuts, but has not been finalized. He assured the NTA that the school district has looked at all areas of its budget in order to find other cost savings.

Chris Lacambra, executive director of Business Services for the district, said the teachers who are laid off would go on a substitutes list. He said Florida Virtual has not been able to find enough teachers and suggested the laid off teachers could find employment with that
program.

Teachers who teach through Florida Virtual, which operates independently of the Nassau County School District, are furnished through the North East Florida Educational Consortium. The district does not receive any funding for those students, thus reducing money received from the state. NTA member Chris Pagel said Florida Virtual is “hurting the community.”

Dietzen said that, based on “anecdotal evidence,” parents did not have a favorable opinion of the district’s distance learning program instituted when schools closed in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. He likened that program to a “911 emergency” effort, and said the distance learning in place now has improved.

Pagel said Florida Virtual does not provide a quality educational experience and said he does not know if parents realize how much of an impact enrolling their children in Florida Virtual is having on Nassau County schools. He suggested a campaign to talk to the parents who have an unfavorable opinion of the district’s distance learning program based on their experience at the end of the last school year.

“I can tell you from my own personal knowledge. I have a lot of friends who are Florida Virtual teachers. I don’t see what the big draw is,” Pagel said. “The way those courses are taught and the way the teachers are told to teach them – they are crap.” As an example, Pagel alleged that students face no consequences if assignments are not turned in on time.

“I’m wondering if we could say, ‘We understand the choices you’ve made. It was a messed up time (during) the first go-around from March to May, but we had to do something,’” he said. “I wonder if the community as a whole really understands the true impact to (the district), which is going to trickle down and cripple us all. I’m just wondering if there is something we can do to reach out to the community to say, ‘You are killing the district and it’s going to have long-term effects.’”

Both NTA and NESPA sent a letter to Burns and the School Board members on Friday to ask the board to consider other cost-cutting strategies before cutting personnel.

“Both unions (NTA and NESPA) representing Nassau County (school district) employees have concerns moving forward. NTA and NESPA understand these are challenging times. We recognize the difficulty in the budget and believe both parties need to work together to solve as much as possible prior to any reduction of our bargaining unit employees through termination,” the letter reads. “NTA and NESPA have compiled a number of realistic and practical cost-cutting ideas which must be considered before any layoffs, RIF’s or terminations. Cutting of instructional and support personnel should be the last resort until after all the suggested steps below are exhausted.”

The list of 32 cost-saving measures includes recruiting students back into district schools, eliminating “non-COVID” purchase orders, eliminating salary bonuses for administrators, freezing field trips, and maintaining a hiring freeze until enrollment recovers.

Recalculations of enrollment were performed last week, but those numbers were not made available to the News-Leader by the Tuesday press deadline.

jroberts@fbnewsleader.com