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August 1, 2014

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Keeping kids in class often falls to novice school workers

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Sam Morris

Longtime attendance officer Lee Schell questions two Eldorado High students Wednesday. His experience means he’s in no danger of being bumped as others have.

In June, Adam Mauk was a Clark County School District attendance officer, his eight-hour days spent chasing down truants, breaking up house parties and ferrying students “left over” at the end of the day.

Today Mauk works fewer hours for less pay as a special education classroom aide at a Henderson elementary school, lifting students in and out of wheelchairs, escorting them to the bathroom and helping with their personal hygiene.

This is not what Mauk signed up for.

“Basically I sit there and watch the kids,” Mauk says.

And Mauk’s old job is being filled by a former elementary school permanent substitute.

This is what happens when the School District has to trim jobs based on seniority: Employees get shuffled around and end up in jobs they might never have wanted. Take, for instance, the case of Mauk and four other attendance officers. In the job shuffle over the summer triggered by layoffs, they were reassigned as classroom aides, taking a drop in both pay and working hours. In turn, five support employees — permanent substitutes — who might never have imagined being truancy officers filled their spots.

The shuffle occurs after the district identifies positions that are being eliminated and positions that are available to be filled. Employee qualifications and seniority are used to determine who will move into which jobs and who will ultimately be laid off.

In the recent budget cuts to save $120 million, the district dismantled the permanent substitute program. (Permanent substitutes had been assigned to specific campuses to fill in for regular licensed classroom teachers or support employees, as needed.)

Permanent subs were in the same job classification as attendance officers. When their positions were eliminated, some of them were shifted, bumping attendance officers with lesser seniority into classroom aide positions. The replaced aides with even less seniority, in turn, either lost their jobs in layoffs or bumped other workers still lower on the totem pole.

There is no requirement that attendance officers have background or experience in law enforcement, although many of them do.

One permanent substitute turned attendance officer says she misses the daily interaction with students in the school setting, but is nonetheless grateful that in her new job — which she said she was surprised to get — her salary hasn’t been cut.

She was relieved to learn she had enough seniority to land another position with the district, even if it’s a job she never expected to do.

“I know it’s sad that we came in and knocked other people out (of their jobs),” the new attendance officer, who asked not to be identified, said. “But our positions were eliminated — we had no choice.”

The district identified 574 jobs to be trimmed in a handful of departments. Of those, 281 employees have found other jobs with the district and 293 were laid off.

Though it’s true that some reassigned to be attendance officers might not have the background or experience of their predecessors, “there’s no saying they won’t develop,” said Bill Garis, the deputy chief human resources officer. “Then it becomes the district’s challenge to make sure they get the proper training and support.”

Attendance officers say their jobs would have been protected had the district required specialized training for the job.

Even though specialized training is not required, the attendance officers nonetheless have voluntarily received it from other agencies, in such topics as self-defense, “verbal judo” and identifying warning signs that students might be involved in gangs, prostitution or other dangerous activities.

Pam Gunter, the senior attendance officer who arranged for the extra training, said she did her best to provide the new hires — five women — with a crash course in the basics before the start of the academic year in August.

“We told them they had to watch out for kids with knives,” Gunter said. “I thought those ladies were going to faint.”

Mauk said it’s a mistake for the district to lump attendance officers and classroom aides together.

“The only excuse they can give us is that we both work directly with students,” said Mauk, who has been with the district for eight years, including two as an attendance officer. “Kids in truancy situations are out on the street in situations involving drugs, alcohol and even gangs. That’s why they’re not in school. Paraprofessionals like classroom aides are in a safe environment within the school. It’s not the same job at all.”

The district has 24 attendance officers, for a ratio of one for every 13,000 students. The staffing is thinner than the national average, Gunter said.

The morning hunt for truants and the afternoon runs for “leftovers” — students left on campus because no one has shown up to retrieve them at day’s end — are the bookends to an attendance officer’s daily routine. The officers also drive home students who are sick or have been suspended.

When a student is perpetually absent, attendance officers are dispatched to visit the home and talk to the family.

And more often in recent years, attendance officers are asked to deliver confidential student files between campuses. That’s been a source of annoyance to veterans such as Lee Schell, who would rather spend his time on duties that directly involve students.

“It’s turning into a paper route,” said Schell, who worked two years as a campus monitor in Laughlin before becoming an attendance officer in 1992. “We might as well put ‘DHL’ on the side of the car door and offer express mail delivery.”

Schell says he’s in it for the challenge of working with students — such as the two from Eldorado High School he spotted on a recent morning sauntering away from the campus.

He pulled over his white Chevy Blazer and rolled down the window, asking the two young men to stop.

Clearly expert at interacting with attendance officers, they both quickly volunteered their names and student ID numbers — punctuating their sentences with a respectful ‘sir’ — and explained that they were seniors and finished for the day.

“You’re done at 10:15 in the morning?” a clearly skeptical Schell asked.

A quick call to the school confirmed both young men were AWOL. There were no hard feelings on the part of the truants, one of whom offered a jaunty wave as he made his way back to school, escorted by a campus monitor.

Schell is grateful that having almost 20 years with the district has protected him from being reassigned. And although he plans to do all he can to help the rookies get up to speed, he worries that some of them are going to struggle with their new duties.

“This isn’t a job for everybody,” Schell said. “It’s probably even harder when you’re not here by choice.”

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