Former Lee County teachers say policy unfair

October 6, 2011 5:46:22 PM PDT
Hundreds of teachers and school workers across North Carolina got pink slips this year because of budget cuts. The law used to encourage school systems to make rehiring laid off workers a priority, but the ABC11 I-Team has learned the rules have changed for certified teachers.

The change in the law was slipped into the last state budget. It has left former school workers frustrated and speaking out about a system they say is inconsistent and unfair, offering them few protections and giving local school boards power that goes unchecked.

Sharon Bridges and her sister, Lea Lanier, know it as a reduction in force or RIF. It's a common policy most local school boards enforce when they have to trim their budgets.

"I still say that's not right," Lanier said.

It's a policy some former Lee County school workers say isn't fair.

"I really need to get another state job so I can get my retirement," Bridges said. "I only have two more years before I qualify for retirement."

Bridges and Lanier were RIF'd in June and months later, they are desperately looking for work hoping to be rehired after their school district received more funding to save jobs.

"We're drawing unemployment," Lanier said. "Why when we are qualified for the 16 positions that are on the website today and yesterday? Sixteen positions within Lee Company."

Bridges and Lanier are not alone.

According to records the I-Team requested from Lee County Schools, the district RIF'd 43 classified workers like bus drivers, cafeteria workers and teacher assistants.

As of September, only 13 of them have been rehired. Letters show the school system gave less than two weeks notice.

Bridges and Lanier say the school district promised to provide one year of insurance coverage, but that didn't happen.

Lee County schools refused ABC11's request for an interview but offered the following statement: "Lee County Schools did not implement a reduction in force for any certified teachers. The district followed Lee County Board of Education policy on all reductions in force enacted."

That's true. The board's policy doesn't guarantee non-certified or classified school workers top priority for new positions. The superintendent has the authority to let them go for any number of reasons.

According to the North Carolina School Boards Association, a recent change in the last budget means even certified teachers aren't guaranteed to get their jobs back after they are RIF'd.

As for notice of terminations, by state law, workers are given at least 30 days notice.

But when ABC11 went to two state agencies, the Depart of Labor and the State Board of Education, to find out how much notice school workers should get, there were no clear answers. Partly because school workers are at the mercy of the state budget and not protected by state laws. That's up to local school boards, which was a surprise to taxpayers ABC11 stopped on the street.

"I don't think that's fair," one taxpayer said. "I don't think that's right."

"It's a right-to-work-state, so there's all that, but bottom line education of our children is one of the most fundamental things we can do," another person said. "It's the fundamental foundation of everything to come."

Board policies vary from county to county. It's a challenge to groups that lobby for school workers.

"We're at-will employees, we're employed at the will of our school boards," said Melinda Zarate, NCTAA. "There's nothing that seems to be fair across the board. There's no set of policy rules that apply even."

In fact, guidelines in place for RIF'd classified workers in Lee County were rescinded shortly after 43 people were let go.

"Other counties did not make people reapply," Bridges added. "The RIF'd employees were just called back. They were given notice way earlier."

Both bridges and Lanier received written reprimands at work before they were laid off.

"Reduction in force to me was not because of my evaluation, it was because the budget didn't allow them to have us at that time," Lanier said. "And now the budget does allow us to come back, and we should be able to have our jobs back."

"Even if it's a different school 'cause I interviews at a different school," Bridges added.

It's unclear why Bridges and Lanier, along with two dozen other RIF'd workers, haven't been rehired. They say their experience speaks to the challenges laid off school employees face every year.

"It was not for the pay, it's not that," Lanier explained. "It's because we love children."

ABC11 wanted to know if the concerns of RIF'd workers have gotten the attention of state lawmakers. ABC11 contacted the chairpersons of the House and Senate Education Committee and the General Assembly, but calls requesting interviews were not returned.

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