When Barbara Rymer began teaching preschool in the Cajon Valley Union School District in 1983, she never could have envisioned being laid off just two years shy of receiving her full retirement. But this is exactly what happened.
Initially, Rymer, along with nearly 200 other teachers received a RIF notice, which stands for ‘reduction in force’, more commonly known as a pink slip. School districts in California are required to give them to employees by March 15 each year if there is the possibility of layoffs. When each of the 24 preschool teachers in the district received pink slips, rumors circulated that the state-funded preschool program was going to be cut. But the district refused to admit that it was on the chopping block.
While some of the pink slips handed out were rescinded at an April 25 contract hearing, Rymer’s was not. In fact, each of the 24 preschool teachers in the district lost their jobs. It was at that hearing that the district finally admitted to the end of the preschool program.
Rymer, who recently turned 60, has a passion for teaching children. Just one day after learning her fate, and the fate of the program she has been so passionately devoted to for nearly three decades, she stands with an enormous smile before her preschool students at Sevick Elementary, maintaining a positive and cheery disposition. She wears a bright pink shirt that reads, “Got Preschool?” which was made by the preschool teachers at Cajon Valley.
Nearly forty years ago, Rymer began volunteering at the preschool at her church, then started taking child development classes. After working as an aide for several years, she became a teacher. A friend referred her to the Cajon Valley Union School District in 1983.
“My favorite part of teaching these kids is allowing them to achieve independence,” she says. “I like to see when they’re able to do things for themselves.”
The state-funded preschool program is designed so that children from low-income families can prepare for kindergarten. Rymer sees the program as essential for many of her students, and an invaluable resource for young children.
Rymer is not alone in this opinion. According to the Child Trends Data bank, a non-partisan, non-profit organization, “Participation in high quality early childhood care and education programs can have positive effects on children’s cognitive, language, and social development, particularly among children at risk.”
There are unforgettable looks of amazement and wonder in the children’s eyes as Rymer sits before them reading a book about insects, and she listens attentively as they raise their hands to tell her about the bugs they have come across in their own homes.
“What they get here is all they’re going to learn about books and reading,” she says. “So those kids are just going to get lost in the shuffle when they get to kindergarten.”
The Cajon Valley Union School District blames the state budget deficit, which is nearing $27 billion, for cuts they’ve made. Governor Jerry Brown had hoped to bridge the budget shortfall by holding a special election to vote on tax extensions, but as it turned out, voters in California didn’t agree. The district was hoping for those extensions to keep the state from deferring payments, but is now facing a $7.6 million deficit in the 2011-2012 school year.
According to Cajon Valley School District Superintendant Janice Cook, in the next year, 45 percent of the funds that the state owes them will not be provided until the following school year.
The district, who can’t defer payments to its employees and suppliers, must rely upon its reserves to meet those financial obligations, Cook says.
In the last two years, Rymer has seen her pay drop roughly 13 percent, including furlough days. Her insurance co-pay has risen from nothing to over $200 per month. Additionally, Rymer, along with many teachers in the district, spend hundreds, if not thousands of dollars out of their own pockets for supplies in their classrooms, supplies that are not provided by the district.
“Our employees have made huge concessions,” Cook says. “They have accepted furlough days and reductions in salary…yet, they continue to work hard.”
Christopher Prokop, President of the Cajon Valley Teacher’s Union, has been an outspoken critic of the district, and believes that they have not done all they can to keep the teachers from losing their jobs. Prokop claims that in addition to the school board overstating their cost and understating their revenue, they also underestimate the budget by half.
According to budget projection documents from the 2009-2010 school year, the Cajon Valley District began with a balance of$38,806,431. When the year ended, the balance was $34,376,956, just over $17 million more than the $17 million that had been projected. Records from ending balances of the previous 8 years show an average of 206 percent of over-projection.
While Prokop agrees that the state is certainly at fault for the current fiscal crisis, he also feels that the district is planning for worst-case scenarios that never come to fruition.
At a March 22 school board meeting, many of the teachers who were given pink slips showed their solidarity by wearing black clothing and packing the board chambers. During a public forum, several teachers, and one student, spoke of their distaste of the manner in which the board and the district is treating its teachers.
“Superintendent Cook is one of the highest paid superintendents in the county of San Diego,” said one teacher during the forum. “She’s taken raises while we’ve all had our pay cut.”
According to The San Diego Union-Tribune, Janice Cook’s current base salary of $203,304 is among the highest of the 45 districts in San Diego County. Her total compensation is nearly $250,000, and according to her contract, that number includes a $360 a month expense account, and a $400 dollar a month mileage allowance. She has, however, taken reductions in her salary in recent years, and has also been forced to take furlough days like other staff members.
“I requested that the Board not provide any raises allowed in my contract starting in 2009 when the current fiscal crisis began,” Cook says.
Cook's contract also shows that she has not received a salary increase since 2008 when she was given a raise of 3 percent.
According to Cook, if an all-cuts budget is adopted by the state, the Cajon Valley District will lose no less than $330 per student, which equals $5 million per year.
“I truly believe that we are damaging a generation of students and we will lose a generation of teachers who just don’t want to deal with the uncertainty any longer,” Cook says. “There has to be a better way of doing things and I hope the Legislature and the Governor work together to permanently solve this problem.”
Just two years short of receiving her full retirement benefits, Rymer is in a difficult position. Her 62-year-old husband is also near retirement. She doesn’t like the prospect of having to pay for health insurance until age 65, when she would be eligible for Medicare.
Rymer’s last day at Sevick Elementary is May 10.
“Probably what I’ll do is go on unemployment until I’m eligible to retire,” she says. “But if I walk away from here, I don’t know if I would want to go back to working at a school. I just don’t know if I could start over somewhere.”