Reaching Heights asks school district superintendent about recent staff reductions
The recent reduction in force (RIF) of CH-UH City School District teachers and administrators has prompted questions and concerns from the community. Krista Hawthorne, director of Reaching Heights, interviewed Talisa Dixon, superintendent of CH-UH schools, to clarify the decision-making process and anticipated results of these personnel changes. [Editor's note: The Heights Observer is publishing the interview in full, below, with minimal edits.]
Hawthorne: As you come to the end of your second year as superintendent of the CH-UH City School District, how would you describe the expectations of our community for our public schools?
Dixon: My experience here has confirmed what I knew from the start—this is a strong, passionate community with high expectations for our schools. This is why I chose to live here, so I could experience all that CH-UH offers. I enjoy talking with community members when I’m out shopping, at restaurants or just chatting with my neighbors. This community is engaged with our schools and embraces our programs, and it was my goal to be a part of that. Great communities deserve great schools, and I believe we are making strides to achieve this.
Hawthorne: How does our district’s grade on the Ohio School Report Card reflect the quality of the education provided to students in our school district?
Dixon: The state ratings are important in that they provide one metric by which we can assess our educational mission. But they aren’t necessarily a comprehensive picture of our students or our schools, a fact which is more and more recognized and is clearly resonating in our community. Our Strategic Plan was specifically created to address every aspect of district performance, including improving state test results and also educating our students beyond these scores.
Hawthorne: The district recently announced that 52 teaching and 5 administrative positions would be reduced from the district’s workforce. Is that the number of positions or employees who would be laid off?
Dixon: Those numbers represent the positions that were eliminated in this process. Since the initial RIF, we have added back 14 positions from the teaching and certified staff list, which takes that number down to 38. These recalls were due to further investments in educational programming as well as a resolution to the district’s continued role at the Bellefaire school. The returning positions include five intervention specialists, two English/drama teachers, one art teacher, one science teacher, one Spanish teacher, one guidance counselor, one security monitor and two instructional specialists in science and social studies. Our staffing discussions are ongoing, so more staff could come off the RIF list as others retire and resign.
Hawthorne: How did you determine which positions would be eliminated?
Dixon: Our educational services team and human resources worked on this process for several months to determine which positions could be reduced without compromising any educational programming. Leadership from the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union was consulted throughout this process as well. We never had a set number of positions in mind to eliminate. The final number balanced the need to cover educational programming and enrollment while also being fiscally responsible with our resources.
Hawthorne: How did you determine which employees would be laid off?
Dixon: The RIF process followed the collective bargaining agreement between the district and the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union. The reduction list was created based on attrition (resignations and retirements), retire/rehire positions, effectiveness ratings, limited-contract staff, seniority and teacher certifications. Based on these criteria, some schools appeared to face more reductions than others. However, teaching assignments have been redistributed across the district to cover and balance programming at all levels.
Hawthorne: If a teacher also serves as a club advisor or as a coach to a sports team, [is he or she] less likely to be laid off than a teacher who does not serve in any other ways?
Dixon: No, this cannot be taken into account according to the collective bargaining agreement with the teachers union. The reduction list is based on a set of criteria, and seniority within the district and teaching certifications play a large role in this.
Hawthorne: Arts education (music and visual) is highly valued by our students and our community. With fewer teachers, will students have access to the classes they are interested in taking or will scheduling be more limited?
Dixon: We recognize the value that this community places on fine arts and would never want to compromise our role in providing those educational opportunities for our students. We absolutely want to make sure we are educating the whole student, focusing on fine arts in addition to the core curriculum. Our students will still have access to those classes, including art, instrumental and vocal music, and drama.
Hawthorne: How do you determine who will be brought back if some teachers retire?
Dixon: In this instance, a call-back would be determined by rank on the RIF list and certifications. To replace a retiree, a teacher would need to be certified in that subject area and have seniority over others with the same certification.
Hawthorne: What is the difference between teacher-to-pupil ratio and class size?
Dixon: Teacher-to-pupil ratio represents the number of pupils per classroom teacher. Next year, we expect to have approximately 450 classroom teachers and a student enrollment of around 5,200. That would give us a ratio of 11.5-to-1, which is well below many comparably sized districts. Shaker Heights and Euclid, which have similar enrollment numbers, have ratios of nearly 14-to-1.
Class size represents the numbers of students in a given class. Our average general education class size is expected to be 22. Classes like physical education, music and art can have larger class sizes. Others could have fewer students, such as science labs, AP and honors courses, foreign language courses, special education classrooms and elementary classrooms. All classes will continue to be below the state maximum size.
Hawthorne: How does the RIF affect special education class sizes?
Dixon: Special education is one area where we will still see smaller class sizes. Special education caseloads and instructional ratios for teachers serving cross-categorical students will increase slightly but remain below the standards set by the state. At the elementary and middle school levels, we expect our special education caseload ratio to be 13-to-1, which is below the state standard of 16-to-1. At the high school, the caseload ratio will be 16-to-1, which is below the state standard of 24-to-1. The district has worked diligently to ensure a full continuum of services is available to our students with special needs.
Hawthorne: Does the RIF decrease the amount that will be asked [for] in the upcoming school operating levy?
Dixon: While not the primary objective of this action, the RIF will result in an annual savings of approximately $3.25 million from the district’s operating budget. Those savings will allow the District to ask for a smaller operating levy in the fall. Our current five-year financial forecast, required by the Ohio Department of Education, shows an unacceptable budget shortfall in fiscal year 2018, which is school year 2017–18. This RIF was part of the plan submitted to the state in January to show how the district would address the negative financial projection. Additional funds from the upcoming operating levy would not be available to our district until 2017.
Hawthorne: Thank you for answering these questions. Your responses have helped me understand the Reduction In Force process much better, which will allow me to share more accurate information with the community.
Dixon: Thank you for your interest and for asking these questions. Our students’ success is always my first priority. Managing our limited funds well while achieving the goals of our strategic plan is a complex process that I take very seriously. I try to provide as much information as possible to all CH-UH school district employees and students and their families. Please encourage everyone to visit the district website (www.chuh.org) for continuously updated information on the strategic goals reached, progress on our new facilities, and events and activities in each of our schools.
Krista Hawthorne is director of Reaching Heights, a local nonprofit that connects the community to the public schools through information, events, and volunteer opportunities to support teachers and boost student achievement. Learn more, donate, or volunteer by visiting www.reachingheights.org.