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In an out-of-the-way office crowded with file folders and reams of paper, two women are quietly figuring out the fates of hundreds of school workers, from lunch ladies to library technicians.

They call out their names, one by one, checking their work with each other. Who keeps their job. Who doesn’t. And where they all end up after the budget dust has settled in San Diego Unified.

“Cecilia? No bumping rights?” says Merila Lett, an administrative assistant in the Human Resources Department, peering at her computer screen. That means Cecilia could be out of a job.

“Yep,” says Pat Raymond, a personnel analyst. She turns over a yellow card that stands for Cecilia and jots down “nBR” — no bumping rights — next to her name on an elaborately marked sheet.

“Mercedes?” Lett asks next. And so they go on, one name after the next.

This is bumping, a process to protect seasoned school workers when their jobs are cut or hours are reduced. If a longtime worker doesn’t want to take a shorter work week or leave, they can snag a job from the newest person with the most hours in their job. And if they’ve climbed the San Diego Unified ladder from one job to the next, they can bump back to the kind of job they held before.

When they nudge someone out, that person has a chance to bump someone else, and so on. It’s a game of musical chairs that someone will lose. If a person has nowhere to bump to, they end up being laid off.

That can happen if someone is the lowest on the totem pole or if someone hasn’t worked in San Diego Unified very long, even if they were hired straight into a top job.

The phenomenon echoes the last-in-first-out system of teacher layoffs, which are under attack in some states and districts. The rules leave little room for schools to weigh the strengths of different workers as they reshape their workforce. Yet bumping, which only happens to workers who don’t teach, tends to attract much less attention.

Swapping out one secretary for another in offices far from schools might seem mundane. But bumping can be harrowing for families who depend on workers who work intimately with children with disabilities, changing diapers and assisting them in class. Susan Ravellette raves about the aide who has worked with her 9-year-old son since kindergarten.

“It takes a while to get to know Ryan. He’s not an easy kid,” she said. Ryan has Angelman syndrome. He doesn’t speak. When he was younger, he grew so frustrated trying to communicate that he sometimes tried to bite other kids. Now he peacefully spends most of his time in an ordinary classroom.

“It took someone who could read the signs. She understands him,” Ravellette said. She doesn’t know if the woman will be bumped or not. It alarms her. “If he had somebody new, it would be a big setback.”

Under California law, public schools must use seniority when they shed workers. “Why would we have a person that’s been there two years who keeps their job while someone with 20 years loses one?” said Judy Fohr, a labor relations representative for educational assistants.

Bumping also multiplies the chaos of layoffs. If the school board decides to cut a department manager who has climbed the ranks in San Diego Unified, it could be a secretary who actually ends up leaving. Cuts at one school could oust someone at another.

“It’s been an issue we’ve wrestled with year after year,” said Chief Student Services Officer Joe Fulcher. His department wants to train special education workers to meet the needs of a wide range of students with disabilities. “Some of our families want to maintain consistency and stability,” Fulcher said. “But in some cases it’s unavoidable.”

It happens every year. But as San Diego Unified combats an estimated $114 million deficit, bumping has gone into overdrive. This year, more than 600 workers who don’t teach could have their jobs eliminated because of budget cuts. Add in bumping and more than 1,500 people could be impacted. Lett and her coworkers have been working late nights and toiled through the weekend to figure it out.

It also complicates the calculation of how much schools save. Because San Diego Unified keeps paying some workers the same salary for a year or more after they shift to a lower job, it becomes numbingly complex to figure out how much the district actually saves.

The phone rings and rings as Lett and her co-workers try to work out who goes where and who gets the ax. Almost every caller has the same question: When will they know?

“We are working on it as we speak,” said Yolanda McKnight, who is polishing off the letters that tell employees where they’ll go. “They’ll probably go out today or tomorrow,” she told another caller.

Employees get no choice in where they go. Health technicians who are used to keeping an eye on diabetic kids in Tierrasanta can be re-routed to Shelltown. Guidance assistants who team up with counselors in City Heights can be switched to Point Loma. The jobs are take-it-or-leave-the-district.

“We don’t have any clue. We’re just thrown in, blindly placed by the district,” said Dorene Dias Pesta, who works with children with special needs. “If they had a list of 100 people and 100 openings and they said, ‘OK, Dorene, you’re number one, come to our office at 9 o’clock, I pick which one I want, then Cathy goes at 9:15′ — we don’t have that. They don’t do that.”

Raymond sits down with a list of all the people in each job classification, ranked by their seniority in their job. They work through one kind of job at a time. Clerk Typist III. Food Services Truck Driver. With a red pen, Raymond marks off who is losing hours or a job. Lett has a computer to pull up the names, but the grunt work is all done by her and Raymond.

“Some people thought all you had to do was push a button,” Raymond said ruefully.

They page through letters from employees that say whether they’ll take lesser hours at the same school or department or whether they’d rather bump. Then one by one, they figure out where they go. The rules can get complicated: A bilingual typist can only be bumped by another bilingual typist, for instance.

They start with the worker who’s worked longest. For instance, the seasoned jettisoned secretary could bump aside the newest secretary who works full time. If there aren’t any jobs that are full-time, the district scours for the newest secretary who works the most hours.

If that greener secretary used to work as a school clerk, he could bump a clerk who had logged fewer years than him as a clerk. And so on. Lett and Raymond scrutinize the pages together before Lett pipes up with the name of the person who’ll be bumped, double-checking her thinking with Raymond.

“Claudia?” Lett asks.

“Mmhmm,” Raymond says.

Someone stops by to offer pizza. Eighties pop songs play on the radio. All this paperwork would seem mundane if they didn’t know so many of these names. Lett says she cries sometimes.

“She’ll be happy,” Lett murmurs as Raymond wrote one name down as ‘no longer affected,’ which can happen if someone else decides not to bump. “They really think the world of her.”

Fohr believes that many of the workers who help students with disabilities will be asked to come back. Still, even if they are, bumping means workers could end up being shuffled around anyway.

“Every year all those bonds are messed up,” said Joan O’Hara, president of the union that represents educational assistants. “We care about the kids. But we haven’t thought of another way to do this.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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