By Jen Butson
Rose Garrett thought she deserved better after 36 years with the Williston School District.
Garrett, 78, held a part-time position as a food services worker. But in a move to consolidate operations and reduce a deficit with the program, school district officials wanted to increase her hours so they could lay off a full-time worker and thus save money overall.
Garrett, however, felt the additional hours were more than she could physically bear. Faced with a choice that Garrett said amounted to working six hours a day or not at all, she quit. Her last day on the job was June 15, the final day of the school year.
”I always did my work, but I can’t lift cases of No.10 cans from one school to another for a full day,” she said. “I guess that’s just one way to get rid of the old people.”
School officials said that Garrett left the job voluntarily and that she could have kept working if she wanted.
“Certainly, the decision about whether Mrs. Garrett is an employee of Williston School District is hers alone,” said Williston Central School Principal Thomas Fleury. “It was not a matter of trying to terminate her. We aimed to reduce hours overall and follow the contract.”
Fleury said the support staff union contract gave her seniority and she would have been eligible for other arrangements. “On the phone and in writing, we have offered her a shift change,” he said.
Cindy Koenemann-Warren, personnel director for the Chittenden South Supervisory Union, explained that Garrett would have been one of the last food services workers laid off under the contract. “It would have been someone with less seniority who would have lost their job, not her.”
Bonnie Sicard, a teacher’s assistant at Allen Brook School and president of the support staff union, learned about the situation and tried to repair hurt feelings and restore Garrett’s original hours.
Sicard said the district was trying to cut expenses, not get rid Garrett.
”What really happened is that the food program has been in the red for many years and to maintain service, there needed to be an hours cut — three hours,” she said.
Sicard learned about Garrett’s decision to leave after the fact.
“I had stopped by the school one day and learned that they had offered her a full-time position,” she said. “After thinking about the years Rose spent here, it was only fair that she should be able to have her three hours.”
Both Fleury and Sicard eventually decided to allow Garrett to work her original schedule. “We met with the union, followed the contract and tried to meet everyone’s needs,” Fleury said.
For Garrett, it was too little, too late.
“I told them no,” she said. “After a month, I figured they had forgotten about me and I was too hurt by this time.”
Fleury said the food service program is still running a deficit.
“We’re in debt to the tune of about $30,000 per year,” he said. “We obviously can’t buy less food; it’s the people costs that we can change.”
"I'm not aware of any other personnel changes, but that does not mean there will not be more," Koenemann-Warren said. "The administration may have to take more action to remedy the deficit."
Bob Mason, CSSU’s chief operations officer, said that though Garrett was asked to take on more hours, it was actually an effort to reduce hours overall and thus save money by laying off a full-time employee who had less seniority.
"The need was to reduce the number of hours and it happened to be the same number that Rose worked," he said. "Originally, if she opted not to work full time, then it would be her hours."
Mason said that asking Garrett to work more hours was a request, not a final decision. He said school administrators tried to balance the needs of the staff with the necessity of cutting costs.
Garrett said what really hurt was the fact that she had seen other co-workers with far fewer years of service acknowledged with a lunch party and kind words when they left. “If they celebrate one employee, do it for all employees,” she said.
Instead, Garrett’s said her decades on the job went unrecognized, not even with a simple thank-you note.
“A nice card with all the girls’ signatures would have meant a lot to me; it wasn’t about getting a gift,” she said.
Garrett’s supervisor, Lydia King, director of food services for the district, said she in no way intended to give Garrett a cold shoulder by not calling her after the school year finished.
"It's not uncommon," King said. "I tend to not be in touch with any of my former employees over the summer months. Still, she was a good employee and she did a number of jobs."
Garrett estimated that about one month passed before Fleury wrote a letter and invited her for lunch. The invitation came after she had written a letter to the editor that was later published in the Williston Observer and Sicard offered to reinstate her position.
“I said keep it,” Garrett said. “That school was part of my life; nearly half my life I worked there.”
Still, Fleury said the position remains open and available for Garrett’s taking.
“The door is open to her,” he said. “I want to be sure that we’re compassionate employers, especially to ones who have done that much service.”
Garrett is unsure about what she will do now that she has rejected the offer for her position back.
“I don’t want to cause any hard feelings,” Garrett said. “But I’m sure the town of Williston would agree that I was treated poorly.”
Both school officials and Garrett expressed concern for the other and hoped that there were no hard feelings.
As for acknowledging Garrett’s nearly half a lifetime of service, Sicard and Fleury said that the school plans to give her a goodbye party after she has time to reconsider coming back to work.
“We do need to do something for her, as we planned,” Sicard said. “I want there to be positive closure.”