"If you're so smart, why don't you come up with a plan?"
That was the challenge thrown at members of the Jefferson County AFT in Alabama this spring after they questioned a decision to lay off 227 paraprofessionals and school-related personnel (PSRPs). The AFT members responded by coming up with a plan that not only preserved the jobs of all the workers, but also laid the groundwork for well-earned raises.
Here's how it went down:
When a new school superintendent arrived in Jefferson County a little over a year ago, union leaders started meeting with him right away, and it wasn't long before they caught a whiff of impending layoffs. Union members met in February to plan for contingencies, including offering each other such practical steps as putting off buying a car or a house.
"We're kind of like weather forecasters," says local President Marrianne Hayward. "We don't know this is coming, but we want to be prepared."
By March, layoff rumors had circulated through the local media and the superintendent was "super furious" with the union for sounding the alarm, Hayward says. Critics implied that the Jefferson County AFT's members were becoming hysterical over nothing.
Sure enough, however, the school board on March 26 voted 3-2 for reductions in force, with a specific list of employees identified for layoff to be issued the next day. Classroom paraprofessionals and office support staff were called to the district office. No friend or representative was allowed to accompany them. Two sheriff's deputies were posted, creating an even more ominous environment.
"With spring break scheduled for the next week," Hayward says, "these people were going to have a million questions and nobody there to answer them."
Not only would the layoffs be bad for students, but they would create terrible hardships for families. One PSRP was shell-shocked by the decision: Her husband is on partial disability, and she is the economic mainstay of her family. Another member had scheduled her last chemotherapy treatment for July, but employees' jobs and healthcare benefits would expire on June 30. A few affected PSRPs were only six months from retirement. "There were just a lot of heartache stories like that," Hayward remembers.
The Jefferson County AFT's 2,000 members immediately began calling the school board, scheduling meetings and asking questions. As the calendar rolled into April, issues surfaced: Why only these two job classes? Had any consideration been given to hardship cases? Was the district in such dire straits that it really needed to save $13 million right away? If so, why was the district's top financial officer given a $10,000 raise?
That's when the superintendent jumped in with an invitation to union members that they would have appreciated at the outset: "If you're so smart, why don't you come up with a plan?"
Jefferson County AFT members were happy to oblige, even though the district declined to provide them with any financial information. Within days, the union posted a four-point plan on its Facebook page:
- Rescind the layoffs.
- Hire an outside auditor to examine the school district's finances.
- Appoint a financial committee to explore and recommend alternative cost savings.
- Fire the district's chief financial officer, who had approved all previous expenditures in addition to recommending her own raise.
With the union's proposal in hand, the school board voted to appoint a financial task force. Each school board member appointed one member to the task force, which also included two union representatives and a member from another education group.
The task force found $8 million in cuts without laying off a single school employee. In late May, a few weeks before the planned layoffs, the school board adopted the revised budget. And by the end of June, it voted to provide raises for every classified employee.