Furloughed Vancouver Public Schools employees feeling the strain

The district is bringing some employees back next week as kindergarten students return to classrooms

VANCOUVER — Two months after more than 600 Vancouver Public School District employees were either temporarily laid off or had their hours reduced, many say they’re finding it increasingly hard to cope.

“Unemployment is just not cutting it,” said Jeff Dixon, a bus driver for the district during a school board meeting on Tuesday. “It’s exceedingly difficult to move forward, or to make decisions, when I do not know when or if my job will be back.”

Many school bus drivers in the Vancouver Public School District have been furloughed during the pandemic. File photo
Many school bus drivers in the Vancouver Public School District have been furloughed during the pandemic. File photo

Dixon, who also has two children attending school in the district, said most employers are asking that he commit to six months at any new job, something he’s unwilling to do.

“I cannot make that commitment in good faith, as I do not know the future of my job,” he told the board.

He’s also limited on jobs he can look for, Dixon said, due to the obligation of helping his children with their online classes.

The decision to furlough or cut hours for hundreds of classified employees is hardly a situation unique to Vancouver Public Schools. Most Clark County districts made the same decision as student enrollment dropped and funding for transportation and food services dried up with most children getting their education online.

Vancouver Public Schools Superintendent Steve Webb said in September the district was facing an anticipated $16 million budget shortfall during this academic year. Staffing cutbacks were expected to save around 10 percent of that amount.

Linda Freeland, a paraeducator at Columbia High School who has not been furloughed, showed numbers she said could bring staff members back, but only if top administrators were willing to accept a temporary pay cut.

“Every time there’s a budget issue, it seems that there’s sort of one solution,” said Freeland, “that is, to cut from the bottom. To say, ‘Okay, these people are expendable. They have nothing of value to bring to the table here, or they have a lot less value.’”

Mary Christine Ortega, a clerical support staff member who has had her hours cut in half, echoed that sentiment.

“At the end of the day, they’re not the ones having to struggle through the unemployment process,” she said of administrators. “They’re not the ones having these internal struggles and battles, like ‘do I wait this out to see if I can continue to do a job I love and possibly not be able to pay my bills and keep a roof over my family’s head?’”

Ruth Ingebrand, a furloughed paraeducator at McLoughlin Middle School said she has been approached by her students at grocery stores, and contacted by parents worried their child was falling far behind.

“They’re desperate,” Ingebrand told the board. “They want the education, and you have employees that are waiting to give them that education.”

While the district is gearing up to return kindergarten students to classrooms on Mon., Nov. 16, hybrid learning for higher grade levels has been put on indefinite hold as COVID-19 case levels remain well in the high-risk range for Clark County, with no sign of slowing down.

The district said Thursday that 115 paraeducators in the district have been called up ahead of kindergarten hybrid classes, while 59 bus drivers have been recalled, 42 of which will be on routes for kindergarten students. Most clerks and secretaries at the district’s 21 elementary schools have also regained most of the hours that had been cut.

Still, hundreds more will remain sidelined, and many of them feel as if their services would be helpful as many students struggle to keep up with online learning.

“Those of you that were teachers, you know, you wouldn’t have been able to make it to the bathroom without your paras there,” Ingebrand challenged the board. “You’re there to help kids. And that’s why we’re here. We’re sitting here and we’re waiting to help those kids.”

Ortega also said she has heard from parents, especially Spanish-speaking ones, who feel as though their students aren’t getting the support they need during fully online learning.

“Parents need to be supported as much as possible during these unprecedented difficult times,” she said, adding that many teachers are feeling overly stretched in this strange new world. “Educators want and need the support staff help. Why are you not giving it to them? Time to bring all of us back.”