NORWALK — Five teachers in a vocational training program for high school students have lost their jobs under a controversial reorganization plan that officials say was necessary to provide the most qualified instructors and prevent a possible state penalty.
The reorganization at the Southeast Regional Occupational Program involved classes that offer training in office skills. The program serves students in the Norwalk-La Mirada and ABC school districts.
Classes offering basic clerical training had virtually no students, while some of the computer-training classes were full and had waiting lists, Supt. Bill Allen said.
"We were paying people for 35 hours a week to run classes that had no students," Allen said.
A total of 13 teachers were laid off Feb. 5, and then were told they would be considered for rehiring if they took a skills examination, Allen said. The examination emphasized computer knowledge and skills. Eight of the teachers passed the examination and were rehired. One teacher failed the test and the other four decided not to take it, he said.
"We're trying to present the best program with the best qualified teachers," Allen said.
The beginning office classes were running into problems because of poor attendance. Since September, a total of 175 students had dropped out of the classes offering basic clerical training, Allen said. The 32 classes offering computer training had an average of 25 students, who were learning how to use word-processing equipment and other skills needed to be hired in offices with computers, Allen said.
The teachers with fewer skills had fewer students, while teachers with computer training had more students, Allen said.
Officials also wanted to make sure that the program passes an audit scheduled early in 1991 by the state Department of Education, Allen said. The program was ordered to repay $158,000 to the state in 1988 and $39,000 in 1978 after apparently reporting inflated student attendance figures.
The reorganization plan has drawn some criticism. Norwalk-La Mirada school board member Armando Moreno said he was concerned about why the teachers were laid off and then were asked to reapply. "This doesn't make sense," Moreno said.
Moreno said he has asked the Norwalk-La Mirada board members to consider holding a joint meeting with the ABC school board members to discuss the issue. Norwalk-La Mirada board members are expected to discuss the reorganization at the next regular meeting March 19.
Allen said officials believed the procedure was the most objective, and that it had been approved by the program's attorneys. "It is an emotional rough thing to go through," he added. "I don't enjoy putting people through it."
Juanita Wagner, one of the teachers who refused to take the test, said the exam was unfair. Wagner, who has been a teacher with the program for 3 1/2 years, said she and two others had purchased home computers to try to upgrade their skills.
She said she decided not to take the examination after discovering that some of the questions dealt with topics beyond her skills.
The test was given March 1 to 34 applicants, including the eight teachers who were rehired. Another two or three applicants who passed the test may be hired part time, Allen said.
The beginning office class is one of about 40 vocational education classes offered in the program, which also arranges some on-the-job training for the students. Some jobs pay, while others do not. There are about 4,000 students.
Classes include welding, accounting, general office skills, auto mechanics, auto repair, word processing and cosmetology. There are about 58 teachers.
The students attend 50-minute classes a minimum of three times a week, Allen said.