(Photos of officials: Liv Rachelle Gold)

School department layoffs exploded into City Council business Monday as the affected clerks, their co-workers, members of the community and members of the School Committee crowded City Hall to speak on the matter.

Initially, the  key issue seemed to be whether the council can have any say on it, since councillor Tim Toomey has introduced a resolution seeking reinstatement of the clerks.

Despite the heat generated, though, behind-the-scenes attempts begun last week to resolve the issue may have made much of the commentary — from elected officals as well as those fearing for their jobs — unnecessary.

Toomey’s resolution has been tabled and is likely to stay tabled through discussion of the schools budget May 19 or even the budget adoption vote scheduled for May 24, councillors said. An attempt made Monday by Craig Kelley to take it off the table failed 7-2, with Ken Reeves joining so Kelley wouldn’t “be alone.”

Meanwhile, councillors and committee members are looking for roles within the city that can be filled by the clerks facing layoffs, keeping them employed until they reach the point of early retirement, said councillor Majorie Decker, leader of the council’s finance subcommittee.

Actual layoffs will likely affect the newest hires among school clerks, not the most senior, she said.

Toomey would confirm only that “talks are under way,” careful not to promise more than can actually be promised at this point.

But because the work is being done behind the scenes, the council meeting’s public comment period took place without many knowing of it.

During public comment, committee member Patty Nolan said the council cannot get involved in the issue. “First of all, it appears that state law actually prohibits a city council from requiring an elected school committee to spend money in any specific way,” she said. “And I do know that our superintendent contract explicitly gives authority to the superintendent for organizing administrative staff.”

She also defended the decisions led by Superintendent Jeffery Young by noting the openness of the process and length of time spent crafting the reorganization, dating back to studies in 2002 and 2005, which will result in laying off 15 people but rehiring about half for newly created positions. The net loss was described throughout the night as being eight employees.

“The budget, which included a projected total positions cut, was voted in early April and open to the public for two months before that,” Nolan said. “Any concerns should have been raised long ago.”

A timeline released April 28 by the department’s Human Resources department showed the process beginning Jan. 28 and including the Cambridge and Massachusetts teachers associations as early as March 5. Informational meetings with affected staff members followed three days later, but focus groups came at the end of the month — controversial, since public comment Monday wondered at the point of holding focus groups if layoff decisions had already been made.

Another School Committee view

“The school budget quite frankly should be postponed,” committee member Fred Fantini said, staking out a position opposite that of his colleague, Nolan. “I’m sorry to put the burden on the council.”

He blamed himself for not asking enough questions about the budget and layoff process, but said the matter was appropriately before the council under a kind of emergency basis.

“This is the time to make an exception to the rule,” Fantini said. “I ask you as a colleague to stand up and do the right thing for these people. This is a very bad time to put single mothers out on the street.”

The council moved on to other matters after several contentious moments and sharp words between councillors Denise Simmons, Decker and Toomey, indicating the high emotion stirred up by the issue.

When the committee unanimously approved the district’s $137.5 budget April 5 — calling for $4.7 million in cuts —the need for layoffs  drew the most debate. An “early out” offer was to be offered to  the most senior staff among those in the Cambridge Teachers Association’s Unit C, which represents clerical workers, or nonunion workers with at least 20 years in the district. Those who have worked the most years were given the package of financial incentives first, an offer of $30,000 over three years with workers keeping retirement pay and benefits.

“It’s pretty phenomenal we’re able to offer any kind of above and beyond process” in such difficult financial times, Nolan said during budget talks.

Questions and criticisms

But the process means the most senior clerks were being cut, with some of those near retirement. Gail Gannon said Monday that, with 34 years in the district, she had only eight months to go until she attained full pension benefits.

All the affected employees are women, and the process was considered by many to have been handled insensitively — and in violation of civil service statutes and the spirit of collective bargaining. One employee, Claire MacDonald, said lawsuits were “being investigated.”

Colbath-Hess

Chris Colbath-Hess, president of the Cambridge Teachers Association, said late Monday that she would not speak “at this time” about the possibility of a lawsuit based on gender or age discrimination. While she was aware of the work being done behind the scenes by some councillors and committee members, she said her first priority was the association’s own “impact bargaining” with the school administration. There has been one meeting, and another is being scheduled — although it might not take place until after May 19.

A primary concern is ensuring the newly created positions, called “specialists,” are part of the union, especially considering the job descriptions of some are “virtually identical to what is currently being done by Unit C members in those positions now. To their credit, the School Department said that one of their purposes in doing this is to recognize that employees are doing more work than they may be getting credit for. They wanted to acknowledge that and provide some job opportunitie for them. In the CTA’s mind, there’s no reason those opportunities can’t be part of the collective bargaining unit.”

Civil service stumbles

Colbath-Hess also acknowledged administration efforts to follow civil service procedures.

“I think that the district has every intention of following, and continuing to follow, civil service guidelines. I think that there has been some misunderstanding of some of the work they have done to try to do that, and there are still some pieces they’re still working on putting it place that has made it difficult for the process to keep moving, and made it difficult for there to be some clarity in the clerks’ minds,” she said. “Sometimes the best intentions just sort of get confused and misunderstood. That could be part of what’s happening. They tried hard to do everything they could to keep the clerks apprised of what was going on. I think the process has moved faster than they may have anticipated.”

The district is still compiling a civil service list, she said. The list would be used to determine who might be uprooted by the reorganization, and in what order.

Even among supporters of Young, the district reorganization and the separation of council and committee powers, there was a feeling the cuts could have been handled better.

“I support what the superintendent is trying to do. I don’t know if it was done in the best way possible,” Madison Avenue resident Mike Nakagawa said during public comment.

This report has been updated with the comments of Chris Colbath-Hess and full quotes from the meeting and will be updated further.