OAKLAND — As school secretary, Jan Seagren deals with lost teeth, bloody noses and broken machines. She keeps track of schedules, paychecks and letters home; answers the phone; helps bewildered new teachers; and greets parents and visitors — all while making sure the kids who have wandered into the office shouldn't be in class.
She has worked in the front office at Grass Valley Elementary School for nearly 20 years, and her roots run even deeper than that. Her kids attended the school in 1980s, and she was once its PTA president. She lives so close to the school that she can see it from her backyard.
"When she's not here, the school feels empty. The school just falls apart," said Michelle Wong, who teaches a combined fourth- and fifth-grade class.
When Grass Valley reopens after the summer vacation, though, another secretary will be at Seagren's desk, and she will be at someone else's.
The Oakland school district, faced with an $85 million deficit, is about to trigger the biggest round of support staff layoffs in recent memory. About 125 secretaries, clerks, instructional aides, security officers, noon supervisors and others will be out of work as a result of the cuts. An additional 188 others, including Seagren, have been caught up in a layoff process known as "bumping," a pecking order written into state law based purely on job title and seniority.
Between the layoffs and the domino effect that is triggered when one person is assigned to someone else's job, 313 people received notices last month that they would be laid off, demoted or transferred. Dozens of Oakland schools will lose an employee — or two or three — who makes the school safer, cleaner, more organized and more welcoming.
"It's hard to replace certain individuals," said Julio de la Cruz, a Grass Valley parent who's in frequent contact with Seagren because of his son's allergies. "It's like a basketball team: Everybody needs a point guard."
How it plays out
Seagren, who was promoted from clerk to administrative assistant just two years ago, will be "bumped" by a more senior administrative assistant from the district's headquarters.
That employee was replaced by someone with an even longer history in the district — whose position was cut, according to a spreadsheet of transfers provided by the Oakland school district.
Seagren, in turn, will take a lower-paying clerk job at Brookfield Elementary. Brookfield's veteran secretary will move to Glenview Elementary, whose secretary of 12 years will be out of a job.
"It's crazy," said Adam Taylor, principal of Brookfield, an East Oakland school just over a retaining wall from Interstate 880. "I'm losing my secretary. She knows the school. She knows the community. She knows the structures. She knows the people.
"She knows the history, which is important to moving forward."
Taylor has another concern: Receiving displaced employees who might — "rightfully so" — feel resentful about being torn from their schools. Bumping, he said, undermines the main purpose of a school system: "To help kids get smarter."
Including Seagren, four employees will be sent to Brookfield to work full- or part-time.
One of them is Arcelia Gonzalez, library clerk for Think College Now and International Community School, elementary schools that share a campus on International Boulevard in Fruitvale. Gonzalez was a bilingual office clerk before moving to the library, and she will find herself in an office role once again.
In a letter to Oakland Superintendent Tony Smith, Jean Stein and Judy Zollman from the Temple Sinai's People of the Book Literacy Project protested the transfer, calling Gonzalez "the heart and soul" of the library they had built together. How could the system allow this to happen?, they asked.
"Arcelia loves the library and is truly motivated to help students develop a voracious appetite for books. "... Everyone knows they can find Arcelia in the library, and she has made the library a second home to students and families," they wrote.
Bumping: It's the law
It is true that superintendents and school boards determine whether to lay off support staff and how many to let go. Once the decision has been made to cut positions, school districts have no choice but to initiate the bumping process, said Troy Christmas, director of labor relations for the school district.
Layoff rules for support staff — as opposed to teachers, whose rules are different — are written into California education law. Section 45308 says "the order of layoff within the class shall be determined by length of service."
In Contra Costa County's 35,000-student Mt. Diablo school district, the employees accepted reduced hours and temporary pay cuts as an alternative to layoffs. The district's original plan was to cut 33 jobs, and union members protested.
The pay cuts are substantial, about 16 percent. But Paula Marciano, office manager at Delta View Elementary in Pittsburg, said the members of her bargaining unit agreed it would be better for everyone to share the pain.
"I think everybody was unified," she said. "They said they'd rather affect everybody than put people completely on the street."
Mynette Theard, who represents hundreds of Oakland school employees for SEIU Local 1021, said furloughs and other temporary reductions also are being considered in Oakland.
If the governor's proposed cuts to early childhood education are approved by the Legislature, the district will eliminate 180 more jobs from her unit — and initiate another, even larger, round of bumping in the fall that could displace workers for a second time.
"We must be as creative as we can to preserve jobs," she said.
Seagren said she would take a pay cut to stay at Grass Valley, the school from which she planned to retire in a few years.
Unless something changes, though, she will have to pack up her "Best Secretary of the Universe Award" and the other contents of her desk and move on.
"At least I have a job," she said.
Seagren acknowledged that the bumping process protects workers with the most experience in the district, a rule she's not sure she would want to waive. In doing so, she said, "it sure makes a mess."