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Home > News > Furlough of nearly 100 employees tentatively approved during school board meeting

Furlough of nearly 100 employees tentatively approved during school board meeting

By Jeri Davis
In this USDA photo, nutrition services workers prepare grab-and-go meals for students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Washoe County School Board held its regular meeting at Edward C. Reed High School in Sparks on Oct. 13, discussing matters ranging from its now regular updates on local COVID-19 trends to lessons learned during the reopening of schools and the need to make up for huge losses in the school district’s Nutrition Services Fund.

Fewer public commenters spoke at the meeting than at other recent ones—and the board recommended continuing its currently employed in-person and hybrid models of learning.

The board ended its more than eight-hour meeting with a lengthy presentation about “lessons learned” during the first six weeks of the reopening of schools. It included presentations from seven departments: academics, operations, business, legal counsel, human resources, school police, and communications. Representatives from each department spoke about both challenges and things they thought had been well executed during the first weeks since schools have reopened.

In regard to the information being presented, Superintendent Kristen McNeill said that the goal was to be transparent and not to gloss over negative feedback.

“All of the warts are out there,” she said, including in regard to a recent school district staff survey that was open between Sept. 21 and Oct. 5. The results of the survey—through which nearly three-quarters of staff conveyed that they feel either “tense, restless, or anxious at work” or “burnt out”—can be reviewed here.

Nutrition services moves from flush to cash-starved

The meeting was marked by high emotions among the board members, but these were highest during the middle portion when the board took up its agenda item concerning the Nutrition Services Fund.

The Nutrition Services Fund is an enterprise fund. These are defined by Nevada Regulatory Statute 354.517. Basically, the statute defines how these funds operate—which is much like a private business enterprise, wherein the expenses of business operations are recovered primarily through charges to users. However, through the end of the school year, students in Washoe County and across the nation won’t have to pay for school breakfasts and lunches. That’s thanks to a waiver issued by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees school meal programs.

Image: USDA

The problem in Washoe County is that students aren’t taking advantage of these now free meals.

According to school district documents, “For September 2020, the average daily meal count was 18,787 compared to” a usual daily average of 45,088. 

That’s a decrease of 58%. 

Even if meals are free, the school district can’t be reimbursed for them by the federal government unless they’re served. 

If no action is taken to curtail expenses, district officials said, the fund would be projected to lose $7.7 million for fiscal year 2021. The fund’s cash position is projected to fall below zero before the end of the calendar year—meaning it could reach an approximated deficit of $4 million by the end of the fiscal year. 

To continue operating if this were the case, the fund would require either money delivered through an interfund loan from another of the district’s accounts or cash from its general fund. The district’s chief operating officer and chief financial officer both spoke to the fact that general fund monies are limited, and that grants, donations or additional federal funds would be the few viable options to keep the Nutrition Services Fund afloat.

Although the number of students taking meals has increased some since the announcement that they’d be free for all children under 18 in the district, officials think it unlikely that the number of meals served per day will climb above 30,000 given distance learning and hybrid A/B schedules. When students are full distance learners, they have only six one-hour windows spread out over three days to pick up meals. These meals are distributed from two locations on each day, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Even at 30,000 per day, the nutrition fund would be losing money.

Mark Mathers
Mark Mathers. Image: WCSD

Chief Financial Officer Mark Mathers explained that when the school district applied for grant funding and CARES Act and Elementary and Secondary School Relief funds, the Nutrition Services Fund was not expected to suffer as badly as it has. He also explained that while the district received $9 million in CARES Act funding, it was hardly enough to shore up any of its programs.

Back in May, Mathers told board members the fund was suffering losses of approximately $55,000 daily due to staff-to-meals ratios but that it was still in the black at that point, as it went into the pandemic in a “very strong cash position.”

During the meeting, McNeill expressed her own concerns about not only nutrition services funding, but also district funding in general.

She said, “I am exceptionally concerned about our financial viability within the Washoe County School District over the next several years—and it goes to a drop in enrollment; it goes to an unknown legislative session; it goes to not knowing if we’re going to have a hold-harmless as to our drop in enrollment; it goes to our per-pupil funding formula and the unknowns around that; and it goes to the use of a fund balance—in other words, your savings account. And we don’t have a lot in our savings account in order to do the things we want to do as a school district.”

Four plans presented

Board members were presented with four plans to deal with the shortfall—each of which came with the heavy prospect of laying off or furloughing dozens of nutrition services employees and potentially cutting or altering meal services for students. Under two of the four plans seriously discussed by board members, losses to the Nutrition Services Account between December 2020 and June 2021 were projected to be either $2 million or $2.5 million.

The board members debated on the proposed plans, which included cuts of between 98 and 165 staff positions. They questioned putting off the decision until the next board meeting on Nov. 10 but chose to tentatively move forward with one of the four plans after hearing from district officials, including Mathers and Chief Operating Officer Pete Etchart, Chief Human Resources Officer Emily Ellison and Director of Nutrition Services Lianka Soliz. 

These district officials spoke to the logistical and financial implications of putting off the decision, including contract and benefit negotiations for some employees and the potential of losing additional money in nutritional services—an estimated $350,000—should they wait; the account is anticipated to drop by about $700,000 per month if operations continue per usual.

Trustee Katy Simon Holland early in the meeting expressed that she would prefer if possible to wait on making cuts. She, like other trustees, noted that the number of students taking advantage of school breakfast and lunch has increased since the USDA put its waiver into place. She also noted that smoke days have affected the ability of students to attend school in person and her belief that the upcoming election could change the climate surrounding proposed stimulus packages to prop up the economy.

Chief Operating Officer Pete Etchart addressed the idea that increasing numbers of students taking advantage of free meals might create a windfall for the district’s nutrition services department. He noted that the hybrid model of “A” and “B” days upon which many students currently attend classes reduces the opportunity for meal distribution and that many students don’t take meals when they’re offered and reminded to take them by administrators.  

“Even the principal being out there and handing them out and doing intercom [announcements]…you just didn’t see a big increase for those schools,” he said. “The problem is, and it just comes back to it, is that we just don’t have access to all of the students.”

Etchart said until Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak changes his COVID-19 directives, that’s going to remain the case.

Trustees choose furloughs over layoffs

Trustee Andrew Caudill also spoke about his concerns regarding the district’s financial status.

“We also have to remember that next year we could have a fiscal Armageddon if everything goes against us that could,” he said. “You’ve got the Incline Village issue that could cost the district $12-13 million in the general fund, potential enrollment decreases, a new funding formula that takes—what—$10-20 million away from Washoe County? And you have a state budget that could look really, really poor.”

Before deciding on one of the four plans, Caudill asked district officials if they could give trustees any confidence that by continuing to grow the number of students regularly accepting breakfast and lunch the situation might be turned around and layoffs or furloughs unnecessary. Confidence was not to be had.

Malena Raymond
Malena Raymond

At one point during the meeting, Board President Malena Raymond told a story about her own daughter attending a new school this year and a nutrition services employee of the district who was kind to her.

‘She was at a new school, didn’t know anybody this year,” Raymond said. “Even though she brought her own lunch that first week, one of things she told me after her first day was that the nutrition services employee at her school came over and checked in on her and asked her how she was doing—and that same employee has checked in with her every week since school started. And I know it’s made a huge difference for her that she had one person at this new school that knows her name—knew it that day.”

Superintendent McNeill, who also wept during the meeting, supported the third option presented to the board. It would have cut or furloughed the first plan’s 98 staff plus an additional 32 staff members at schools that are currently serving approximately 50 or fewer total meals per day and would have resulted in the suspension of hot meals at said schools.  

“Now, do I sit here before the board and the public relishing in the fact that this is the largest, the largest—let me say that again, the largest—employee impact in my 27 years that a board has been put in the decision making recommendation?” she asked. “So, it is not something that this leadership team and Lianka [Soliz] and her team take lightly.”

While several other board members appeared ready to support Superintendent McNeill’s recommendation, Board President Raymond argued for option one—a difference of 32 positions. In the end, this was the recommendation that passed—sparing those 32 positions, for now. Nonetheless, the furloughs will represent a reduction of  approximately 44% of administrative support and central kitchen positions and a 23% reduction to school sites positions.

The board also decided to pursue furloughs in lieu of layoffs. Furloughed employees, according to Chief Human Resources Officer Emily Ellison, will still be able to apply for unemployment benefits. And while she and her team will begin discussing how furloughs will work with the employment contracts of various employees, the board will revisit the issue at its Nov. 10 meeting.

Watch the full meeting:

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