A few hundred Frederick County Public Schools bus drivers and cafeteria workers are expected to be laid off in the coming weeks, Board of Education President Brad Young said Wednesday.
Employees in the transportation and food and nutrition services departments were alerted this week that positions would be reduced due to the school system operating in a virtual mode for the fall semester.
Young said this decision was not based on budget, but based on the fact that there is simply no work for these employees.
"In the spring, in the emergency, we did the right thing. We paid folks all the way through. But, it’s hard to justify to other employees who are working, how you’re paying other employees who are not,” Young said.
Unemployment will not take effect immediately. All employees will continue to be paid through Sept. 15 and FCPS will continue paying for their health insurance through at least the end of 2020.
Young said the board made the decision to continue paying for benefits because they wanted to be fair to a group of employees whose work is highly valued.
It is yet to be determined though which employees in both departments will be let go and which will be able to keep their jobs.
Because FCPS plans to bring in small groups of students for in-person instruction, some positions will still be needed.
“We will be continuing meal service and a limited number of students will still be transported. FCPS is working with the Frederick Association of School Support Employees to identify the recall procedures for the staff that will be used during the virtual model,” School Superintendent Terry Alban said in an email.
But it is still unclear how many positions they will need to retain. After that number is determined, employees will be asked whether they want to keep working or simply take the health insurance “package.”
If there are too many employees who want to keep their jobs, Young said the school system would then start “working down the line” in terms of who is laid off or not.
Lexie Kepple, a bus assistant for FCPS who has been working to transport special education students for more than a decade, said the uncertainty of if she will have her job come September is the scariest part.
“I’ve been getting summer pay since June [and] saved money here and there but it's not enough to cover the bills until January,” Kepple wrote in a Twitter message. “Now I will have to find something else to hold me off and hope someone can watch my son while I do that.”
If offered the option to keep her job, she said she would take it despite having a compromised immune system and a son with special needs.
“I miss my kids and want to go back and see their smiling faces and have something to get up for,” Kepple said.
She also wishes she and her colleagues were notified sooner.
Alban said in an email that in order to honor negotiated contracts "Reduction of Force” letters needed to be sent out this week to give employees at least 30 days notice.
The decision to go in this direction with layoffs was made over the last week in closed session discussions between the board and Alban, Young said.
When asked if more layoffs may occur later in the year, Young said he does not anticipate that and stated that those who are laid off would be able to be rehired quickly when operations return to normal and schools become more comfortable bringing in students.
The salaries of transportation and food and nutrition services workers was included in this year’s approved budget. Since payment for these positions will end in September, Young said that money will likely be redirected to other needs that have arisen due to the pandemic.
“We’re having to invest an incredible amount of money in technology infrastructure and in Chromebooks...many of which are needing to be replaced, many of which are needing repair,” Young said. “We also have a fair number of students who were left behind last spring and need compensatory services to be caught up which is basically done through overtime.”
In previous board meetings, members had discussed the possibility of diverting employees into other needed roles in order to prevent layoffs. Young said this has been discussed but that there was still an excess of employees in these specific departments.
"It was our desire to try and find something for everybody to do so that we didn’t have to lay anybody off...we have a lot of teaching assistants and so we’re going to be looking at reutilizing those folks,” Young said. “But when you have 500 bus drivers...there’s only so much you can find for them to do.”
At the most recent board meeting, board member Liz Barrett had specifically mentioned cutting the salaries of central office employees in order to save some jobs.
In an email Wednesday, Barrett said she was “incredibly disappointed” at the lack of creative problem-solving regarding the layoffs and added that people are FCPS’s most valuable asset.
“Businesses, school systems, and non-profits across the United States are absorbing COVID impacts with far more agile and innovative approaches,” Barrett said. “There should have been better problem-solving for some of our most dedicated and low-paid employees.”
Barrett also said the way in which employees were alerted of the layoffs lacked empathy.
When asked if cutting central office staff salaries was considered, Young again pointed to the fact that this was not a purely budgetary decision and therefore would not have made a difference.
“If we were in hard economic times, where our budget was hit, that would be a normal thing that you would look at,” Young said. “If we cut administrative salaries, it still would not make sense to go out and pay people not to work.”