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Schools for blind, deaf shuffle jobs; 26 on probation

by Michael R. Wickline | June 12, 2015 at 2:38 a.m.

Officials for Arkansas’ schools for the deaf and blind say they’re going to transfer their shared employees in 26 positions to positions at each school and put them on six months’ probation, starting in July.

State Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, said Wednesday that while the board for the two schools “has the authority to do this … the board is absolutely abusing its authority.”

Superintendents for the two schools told legislators that no one is being laid off.

But Zoreda Richardson, personnel manager for the schools, told lawmakers Wednesday that the schools plan to put these employees “back on probation with no grievance rights.”

“With no grievance rights, that means you are going through the back door to do what you won’t do in the front door,” she said.

A month ago, Jim Hill, superintendent for the Arkansas School for the Blind, told lawmakers that the schools are attempting to reclassify employees to one school or the other after ending their shared services unit, which employs administrative, maintenance, public safety and transportation workers.

These employees would be eligible for rehiring with their benefits intact after reapplying for their jobs, but they wouldn’t be guaranteed continued employment, he said.

Legislators who heard Hill’s explanation in May questioned why the reclassification and reapplication process was necessary if the goal was to move employees to a specific school.

During a meeting of the Legislative Council’s personnel subcommittee Wednesday, Elliott said that she had met with school and state officials about the schools’ plans for using this “reduction in force” process.

One board member told her that “this was an opportunity to get rid of some bad actors,” she said.

She later received an email stating that the board for the two schools decided to abandon its plan for a “reduction in force” and that “they would have the lateral transfers. You go your way. I go my way [and] problem solved,” she said.

A letter she received later stated something else had been decided, Elliott said.

Hill said that there might have been “a misunderstanding.”

“We are doing lateral transfers,” he said. “Employees who were in those positions will remain in those jobs, and as far as I know the same for the school for the deaf.”

Hill said no one will be laid off from the school for the blind.

Mike Phillips, superintendent of the Arkansas School for the Deaf, said Thursday that no one will be laid off from his school either. All but a few of the 26 positions are filled, he said.

Kay Terry, the state’s personnel administrator, said the schools “wanted to make sure that the new employees would come on board, get new job standards that [they] would be evaluated against, and then they would be able to do that within a six-month period.”

Richardson said the employees were placed under Hill until July 1, and he “gave us all a letter stating that we would all be placed back on probation and if we did not agree with that then our services would no longer be needed after June 20, and we would not have a job if we did not agree with it.”

“I did not say you would not have a job,” Hill countered. “But I did say you would be on probation.”

Terry said that “it was my understanding that there was no plan for any terminations whatsoever.”

“They just wanted to get their own individual standards in place and have the employees to work to those standards,” she said. “But if somebody was dismissed at that particular point in time, they would have to go directly to the court [to challenge the termination]. They wouldn’t have to go through the normal statewide grievance process.”

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said that these employees, who have an average of 15 years of service, would have no grievance rights and have “to rely on the kindness of strangers in essence.”

Hill said the school for the blind “has always dealt honestly with its employees and has never taken advantage of the opportunities to hurt anybody or to do anybody wrong.”

“For those who know me, I would say that I lean over the other direction rather than try to get rid of someone. I don’t intend to be harsh with these new employees. I don’t intend to get rid of them through a devious method. But I do plan to grade them on the new standards that I will have for them,” he said.

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