Teach your workers well?

The Orange County Public Schools system is in the education business, but learning has taken a back seat to budget constraints in its handling of an employee-training program.;;This was made clear in an Aug. 8 letter from the district to the Orange Educational Support Personnel Association, which represents about 8,000 non-teaching district employees.;;In May 1996, the district agreed to pay for an 18-month training program during work hours for facilities maintenance technicians. But recently, as the union and district are mired in another round of contract talks, union officials say the district wants future graduates to begin paying for the courses and attend classes after work hours.;;"The district has abandoned this agreement," said Steve Anderson, union president. "The district is reneging on this.";;Under the agreement, the technicians, which are stationed at every school, are entitled to pay raises of about $1.70 an hour upon completion of the program that teaches them proper maintenance of various systems in school buildings.;;"The district gets two things: a highly trained employee and a motivated employee," said Anderson, a district electrician before his election to the union post.;;Velma J. Turner, the district’s director of labor relations and support services, was unavailable to comment. But the letter from her to the union explains that the district will begin offering the classes "in the late afternoon and/or evenings" for $3 an hour. Also, the courses will no longer be required.;;While the agreement involved only 130 employees, Anderson said it was to serve as a model for others establishing similar programs for other classified district employees. Without a boost in job skills, Anderson said these workers face "the biggest threat to job stability -- technological displacement."; ;;Anderson fears that, as computers and other equipment become more sophisticated, the workers will become less able to succeed at their jobs, allowing the district to justify an even greater reliance on consultants, rather than its work force.;;"I don’t see the district willing to talk about these issues," Anderson said. "They’re doing bottom-line management.";;While such cutbacks might seem to make financial sense, Anderson points out that experienced workers can save the district money through preventative maintenance. Also, staff are required to undergo background checks and become potential role models for students, while contractors come and go with less scrutiny and lasting effect.;;Under state law, the union has no right to strike. But Anderson is weighing options, including taking legal action charging the district with an unfair labor practice. "The school district has a long history of broken agreements with classified employees. We don’t believe them," Anderson said. ;;While emphasizing that the administration considered the program a success, district spokesman April Podnar said the changes were the result of balancing budget constraints with the value of continuing the program at the district’s expense.;;Upon graduation, the master technicians would provide the district with a core of highly qualified workers to maintain its aging buildings. "We feel the program has accomplished its goal," she said. And there was an unexpected expense: In addition to paying for the classes and covering for the workers while they were in class, the district wound up with an $18,000 bill for mileage. "That was kind of a surprise," Podnar said.;;Finally, there is only so much money to go around. By diminishing its investment in the program, the district will be able to devote more money to other areas, perhaps even other training programs. ;;The union is balking at bringing the agreement into the contract talks. But it seems clear that this dispute already has become part of the negotiations, and likely that the workers will wind up on the short end of the deal.
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