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Sioux City public school hourly workers to be paid during coronavirus closure
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Sioux City public school hourly workers to be paid during coronavirus closure

Taylor Goodvin

Taylor Goodvin

SIOUX CITY -- Sioux City School Board members said they didn't want hourly school district workers to face an inability to pay ongoing bills, so they voted Friday to pay all employees during the time classes are not being held due to precautions taken to stem the coronavirus pandemic.

The board voted 6-1 to pay all hourly support personnel, such as instructional aides, bus drivers and secretaries, at least up through late April, at the estimated cost of $1.9 million, while students are out of classes.

The special Friday morning meeting played out in atypical fashion with few people in the room, due to recommended social distancing, with only 10 people allowed to be present.

The board members declined to support a prior motion to pay all employees through the rest of the 2019-20 school year into June, as favored by member Taylor Goodvin. The estimated cost for that move was $3.7 million, and is already in the current 2019-20 year budget.

Similar decisions to pay hourly school employees over upcoming weeks has been made in the largest metro school districts, plus dozens of others, this week in Iowa.

"There is no easy decision and there is no perfect decision," district superintendent Paul Gausman said.

Those voting in the majority said there is uncertainty on whether school will resume on April 14, so making the decision for a much longer period wasn't necessary at the moment, which was a point first raised by board member Dan Geenwell. With so much uncertainty on the pandemic's reach, Gausman said it is "a very real possibility" that no more classes will be held, so only roughly three-fourths of the 180-day school year will involve instruction to students.

If the year ends with no more classes, and the Friday decision is amended to cover pay from April into June, the hourly district employees impacted will be paid for about 55 days, or 11 weeks, of not working.

Gausman pointed to the coronavirus impact doing "dire" damage to school finances next year. As restaurants, bars and some retailers curtail services, he said sales tax revenues will dwindle, and Iowa legislators might make mid-year across the board cuts, he said.

Monday was the first day that Sioux City and other K-12 districts did not hold classes.

Gausman announced the closure late Sunday night, right after Gov. Kim Reynolds recommended K-12 districts halt classes for at least 30 days, as coronavirus concerns swept through the state. The Sioux City district, and many others, now plan to resume classes on April 13 or 14.

Teachers who hold salaried contracts will be paid while not teaching. Others who are paid by salary or on an hourly basis, such as administrators, maintenance workers and administrative assistants, will work during the time classes are not held. The question at hand was whether to pay such workers as bus drivers, instructional aides and some secretaries, since there is no work for them to do.

One proposal aired, which would have cost not nothing, would have seen the board furlough the nonessential hourly workers, so they could get immediate unemployment benefits, although no one spoke in support of it. Gausman said the nonessential phrasing sounds disparaging, but noted it is a legal term for some groups of district employees.

Greenwell said board members needed to keep in mind that they were working with budget money that comes from taxpayers, so a cautious approach was best.

Board members such as Perla Alarcon Flory and Monique Scarlett said they got a lot of input on the topic from teachers, other district personnel and other community members. Scarlett said it was important not to have interruptions in paychecks to hourly workers, as a "lifeline" for their financial well being.

The final vote came after the one hour, 40 minute meeting that included only the seven board members and a few district personnel, to achieve social distancing. No members of the public were allowed in, and other administrators who had information to provide on the topics at times sent mobile device text messages to Gausman, who would read off the answers.

Brenda Zahner, director of the Siouxland UniServ group of the Iowa State Education Association, is a union official working with the Sioux City Educational Support Personnel Association, which represents paraprofessional associates, secretaries and bus assistants, who are paid hourly.

Zahner told the Journal, "I have been in touch with several board members to express that they need to do the right thing and pay people their full wages for the duration of the closure."

Gausman said school personnel have worked well together over the trying week.

"This is an unprecedented time," he said. "...We have enough staff to rise to the challenge, but how that looks may change."

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