In avoiding staff cuts, Aurora district prepares to create new jobs at potential cost of millions

In a file photo, Aurora students take science tests in 2015. Aurora administrators are working to match displaced employees with job openings to prevent having to create new positions for them and potentially others. (Nic Garcia)

Aurora school district leaders are planning to create jobs for people who have been displaced, if they can’t find a district vacancy that they can fill for next school year.

As of Tuesday, 11 employees who lost their jobs through budget cuts but still have job protections still had not yet found new positions in the district. Usually, that would have triggered layoffs, known as a reduction in force, but the Aurora school board twice cast split votes against letting the district make staff cuts. 

Instead, they chose an alternative plan to keep everyone employed — at a district cost of up to about $2.7 million. That’s out of the district’s usual operating budget of about half a billion dollars. It’s an unusual move for a school board and has prompted more discussions about whether it was outside of the board’s role. 

Aurora administrators are still working to match the remaining 11 displaced employees with job openings to prevent turning to the alternative plan — which involves adding more jobs.

The exact cost will depend on how many and which employees fail to find a match.

The district will pay any unmatched employees who qualify to teach to become full-time substitute teachers to fill in as needed. 

Earlier this month, when 15 people remained unmatched, the district estimated it would cost $808,000 to create substitute roles for the then-nine qualified staff. That amount could decrease if there are fewer employees the district has to place in newly created substitute jobs. 

For those who aren’t matched and aren’t qualified to take a substitute teaching role, the district would increase school budgets by the amount of their salary so the person could keep their current job. 

But to comply with federal laws that require equitable school funding, the district would have to increase each school’s budget by that same amount. The exact cost is uncertain as it depends on the employee left unmatched, but is estimated to total up to $1.9 million. 

If the employees left unmatched include even one person who can’t fill in as a substitute teacher, that could trigger the entire $1.9 million cost. This would be in addition to the potential $808,000 for substitute teachers.

Chief Financial Officer Brett Johnson said he wanted the board to understand that the decision to keep staff instead of laying them off is essentially a decision about budget priorities.

“It has repercussions that are bigger than just one position,” Johnson said.

Tuesday night board member Debbie Gerkin, who voted twice on the losing end to allow staff cuts, asked the board if they could take a third vote in light of the potential financial consequences.

Her request was mostly met with silence.

Board member Nichelle Ortiz, who voted both times with the majority to prevent cuts, had said when she voted that she lacked enough information about the process for the cuts and who would be affected. Tuesday she said she didn’t want to vote again, but she did suggest the district better educate new board members. Ortiz joined the board in 2019.

“Having a better, more comprehensive board training set up around HR, around budget, would be really beneficial,” Ortiz said. “It’s not something I want to hash out again, but it’s a ton of information.”

Also Tuesday, board members once again wrestled with their management of the district and whether they had overstepped their role by preventing the staff cuts. But board members Ortiz, Vickie Reinhard, and Stephanie Mason questioned if their job was only to rubber stamp the district’s work, saying they felt pressured to change their votes.

In opposing the cuts, board members had also talked about the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, including accurately predicting next year’s enrollment, or whether more staff would be leaving the district soon. Board members also said it was a tough economic situation in which to leave people without jobs. 

Russell Dale, who lost his job after working in the district for 18 years, told the board that he is frustrated with the process of having to match to a job that doesn’t work for him. 

Dale said he is concerned that if he refuses a position that doesn’t suit him, because of low pay for example, he would be forced to resign, or be fired, potentially jeopardizing the ability to apply for unemployment later.

“I would really be happy if I acknowledge I don’t have a job for next year and on my last day of work walk off in peace to find a job elsewhere not within the district,” Dale said. “I would like to have the opportunity to file unemployment should I need it.”

In the second vote against the cuts, board members asked why administrators were not cutting administrative costs as they were cutting school budgets.

Only schools projected to lose enrollment had to cut their budgets, in some cases cutting staff. 

Aurora schools have steadily been losing enrollment, particularly in the northwest side of the city, bordering Denver. 

Superintendent Rico Munn pointed out that the district funds administration differently from schools, whose budgets depend on their student counts. 

Munn also defended the importance of administrators’ work, but some board members said displaced employees are much closer to students.

“All the positions listed are boots on the ground,” Ortiz said. “This is going to hit students first.”

On the other hand, Gerkin and board President Kayla Armstrong-Romero were concerned that keeping people employed could take away student resources in other ways.

Johnson told the board Tuesday that it’s not certain how the district will fund the plan to keep displaced workers, but it might use some reserves. 

The board will vote on the budget next month. 

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