A "Tuesday Night Massacre" in the Wake school system: "Shock and Awe"

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With all of the turmoil around the Wake school board's stance on diversity and student assignment, the fact that the new board adopted a cut-the-budget plan Tuesday and immediately terminated 68 employees got far less attention than it merited. What followed — career employees "riffed" (fired) in a manner apparently taken from the CIA handbook — was absolutely horrifying.

One of the employees at Project Enlightenment (the building is shown at left), a valuable pre-school intervention program in Raleigh for at-risk children and their parents, sent me a column about the way she was treated — or, to be accurate, mistreated.

Lynne Johnston's piece is reproduced in full below the fold. An excerpt:

On Tuesday night during the school board meeting my coworker and I were teaching thirty-seven parents in the third class of a series called, "Positive Discipline: Firmness and Limit Setting”. This is a course we have offered multiple times each school year for decades. This workshop series would help any parent with foundation discipline skills and therefore have a positive influence on children and their classroom behavior. Arriving home Tuesday night at 10:15 pm and returning the phone calls received during the class, I learned that the job I had since 1979 was eliminated; my e-mail and computer were shut off. Additionally, after working with thousands of parents and children over the years, I would not be allowed back at Project Enlightenment the next day. First, I was told I had to be processed on Thursday at Human Resources, then, my key and badge would be taken. The packing up of a thirty year career would be supervised.

I'll try to get a response from school officials as to why she and others were treated so shabbily ...

(UPDATE: The response from Michael Evans, the school system's chief spokesman, is at the end of the post below.)

... in the meantime, do read her account in its entirety:

THERE HAD TO BE A BETTER WAY!

(by Lynne Johnston)

In corporate America employees are often terminated in a "surprise attack”. The employee arrives at work and is told to pack up and vacate the premises. While collecting one’s personal items, the shocked employee is supervised and escorted off the premise. Suddenly, life is completely upside down.

On Tuesday, April 20, the Wake County School Board of Education (BOE) approved the Reduction in Force (RIF) plan. Immediately, Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) Administrators executed their secretly preplanned procedure to call and lay off sixty-eight employees of WCPSS. These employees then experienced a scenario as cold and calloused as any corporate surprise attack.

Only, these employees, of which I am one, are not corporate America. Yet, the WCPSS layoff process was equally demeaning, disrespectful and traumatizing both to the immediate staff affected, their families, interns, coworkers and, most importantly, to the unsuspecting parents, teachers and children we serve. At Project Enlightenment eight of the nine Parent Counselors/Parent Educators who were fired experienced this surprise attack by phone calls to our homes on Tuesday evening starting only an hour after the RIF went into effect. One staff member had just received the unexpected news the night before of her brother’s sudden death. A ninth staff member who had been out the night before celebrating her birthday came to work at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday for an important parent /teacher conference and was told then that her position had been eliminated.

We do not have security secrets to steal nor are we dangerous people who might take equipment or retaliate in some destructive manner. We are all Professional Counselors, Social Workers and Psychologists deeply committed to our profession and dedicated to the mission of Project Enlightenment and to public education. Ranging from eight to forty years of service, together we have more than 200 years of experience just at Project Enlightenment teaching parent education classes, leading parent support groups, answering Talkline (our phone line to answer questions about young children) and working with individual families to strengthen parenting skills and solve the puzzling issues interfering with learning that children sometimes present to their parents and teachers.

Forty-eight percent of the families we served are economically challenged. All are concerned about their children's development and are motivated to help them be successful learners and citizens. Our goals are to start before children enter kindergarten to close the achievement gap as well as to help young children be successful in school. While we were visited by an education delegation from Jordan a few weeks ago because of our excellent education for prevention and early intervention services, it is hard to understand why these crucial services are neither understood nor valued by Central Office or the BOE in Wake County.

On Tuesday night during the school board meeting my coworker and I were teaching thirty-seven parents in the third class of a series called, "Positive Discipline: Firmness and Limit Setting”. This is a course we have offered multiple times each school year for decades. This workshop series would help any parent with foundation discipline skills and therefore have a positive influence on children and their classroom behavior. Arriving home Tuesday night at 10:15 pm and returning the phone calls received during the class, I learned that the job I had since 1979 was eliminated; my e-mail and computer were shut off. Additionally, after working with thousands of parents and children over the years, I would not be allowed back at Project Enlightenment the next day. First, I was told I had to be processed on Thursday at Human Resources; then, my key and badge would be taken. The packing up of a thirty year career would be supervised.

On Wednesday morning all staff members at Project Enlightenment were in shock as were the parents and teachers calling about services. Workshops, for which parents had already paid, were suddenly cancelled. Counseling sessions with parents and children were called off at the last minute as were meetings with parents and teachers to discuss students with complex needs. Letters related to court cases could not be written. Con-ferences regarding student interns with university faculty could not be held on site and Talkline was turned off. Computers were shut down containing publication drafts, screening reports, records and other essential documents to help families and children. There was no time to even call parents in order to help them find a referral source—much less have a closing session. Some of the workshops cancelled for the remainder of this one week were, "The Spirited Child”, "Dealing with Power Struggles” and “Taming the Dragon in Your Child". Workshops that were to be held later this school year for teenaged parents and those at The Raleigh Rescue Mission were also cancelled. Sadly, parents at the Raleigh Rescue Mission were just starting to see the relevance of these parenting workshops, as they had begun to strenghen critical connections and build stronger relationships with their children.

At Project Enlightenment we do not work with objects on an assembly line. We are a human service and educational program. Parents and teachers trust us to discuss and resolve confidential, complex concerns. In doing so, we value and are held to the standard of many professional ethics including, “Do No Harm” and not to abandon our clients in the middle of a counseling process.

Reeling from the turmoil of suddenly losing nine staff members within a few hours, on Wednesday morning three of the four essential administrative assistants were told to report to new jobs in other departments after lunch. They replaced still other system employees who had just lost their jobs. Employees were being treated like chess pieces; they were being moved around the WCPSS chess board without regard to the impact of those decisions on the employee or the program. Further, our director had not been consulted about these specific changes and had no warning that an integral component of our early intervention program would simply vanish.

Not only was the entire Parent Counselor/Parent Educator team of Project Enlightenment eliminated, but a team of fourteen Parent Liaisons and their director from another department were also fired immediately. For a School Board elected because of their sensitivity to the concerns of parent voices, this is incongruous.
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It didn’t have to be done this way. Even if these firings were in the best interest of children (and they weren’t), our director could have had warning and planning time. At least we could have used our two weeks of paid leave to be in the building having final meetings with families to make plans or at least notify them that services would end. We could have had time to go through our computers and also make some professional decisions about what to do about workshops and Talkline. Two weeks is hardly enough to wrap up a thirty year career, but it is preferable to two minutes.

This staff reduction plan must certainly have been in the planning stages for weeks. Why then were the employees of WCPSS and the citizens of Wake County not afforded planning time? Rather than experiencing “shock and awe”, we could have had an orderly procedure which showed respect for parents, children and teachers as well as employees. This could have allowed us to maintain our professional standards and reflected more positively on the reputation of WCPSS and its School Board.

To those who believe this is the only way to terminate employees, I challenge you to think out of the box. Does the next inevitable round of layoffs have to copy a degrading and inhumane example of corporate America? Ask yourself what you are modeling about adult decision-making and human dignity for the next generation? We at Project Enlightenment have always put this question first in all we do.

To the WCPSS administrators and School Board, I hope you personally never have to experience this process in your work or any other life change. Even in an economic disaster the cost of human dignity is priceless, and it should be preserved.

Lynne Johnston, LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker)
lynnejohnston@nc.rr.com

Michael Evans, chief communications officer for the Wake County Public School System, said the terminations Tuesday followed a process that began months ago and included a posted notice to employees in March. Terminated employees were called Tuesday night because a list of their names was made available to the public and press immediately after the school board met in private session Tuesday evening to approve it. They'll be paid through May 5.

As for why they were terminated so abruptly, with their access to the school system's computers cut off immediately and access to their desks tightly controlled as of Tuesday night, Evans said "a senior management group, including HR (Human Resources)" officials made the decision to handle the firings in that fashion. The group's decision was shared with, but was not made by, the school board, he said.

Evans said some terminated employees took the news "quietly and understood the reasons for it"; but others were "quite upset" — as management anticipated they might be. "We had a wide variety of reactions," he said, "and from some of those reactions, we feel very justified in the way we handled it."

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