The "years of service" celebration is a November tradition at UMass Boston, singling out faculty and staff who've been at the school from 10 to 50 years.
Like other universities, UMass Boston is an unusually full-service employer. You can work, learn, earn advanced degrees, and get daycare for your children. Thanks to those benefits, and relatively high state salaries, many work on Columbia Point for decades.
This year, there was no celebration. On Nov. 16, 36 employees learned that their positions were being eliminated as part of an ongoing effort to close the school's budget deficit. Eight more will lose their jobs at the school's Early Learning Center (ELC). Its closure was announced in July.
This Christmas, many are counting down the weeks, or days, until the end of work.
Among them is Debbie Williams, who said she and others did get a gift from university administrators: a thank-you note, and a pin in the shape of a puzzle piece.
"It was an odd goodbye present," said Williams. She and others in her position — many women, many late in their careers — said they felt like puzzle pieces being thrown away. She added that she and many others sent the pins back.
'It's Hard To Say Goodbye'
The Early Learning Center at UMass Boston is about a mile from the center of campus. Still, they noticed the reverberations early.
After that, "you could feel it," said Sandra Bispham Parkin, who has served as the center's director since 2002. "We were doomed."
Not so long ago this past year, the ELC was serving near its capacity: more than 50 young children, from toddlers up to 5-year-olds. But since the announcement, its enrollment has dwindled.
During its last week of operation, seven students attended classes at the center. On its penultimate afternoon, most of them were bopping up and down in a classroom, as staff and student workers looked on.
“It's been hard saying goodbye to them,” Williams said.
This is not her first farewell to a class of children — Williams has been teaching and doing staff support at the ELC since 1982. But this time, there's an overlay of regret: that along with her colleagues, she's leaving behind her life's work on someone else's terms.
Out in the hallway, Bispham Parkin looked through old photos of her time there. She started at the ELC in 1984, two years after Williams. Together, they've lived through three moves and multiple threats to close the center.
Long-serving staff make the ELC unusual among preschools. In Massachusetts, childcare workers earn a median salary of $25,000 or 30,000 a year. In spite of the growing body of research showing that high-quality preschool can make a world of difference for its students, turnover in the field is generally high.
In the early days, the ELC was the same way. “A lot of years we didn't get raises," Bispham Parkin said. "But we love our job so much — it wasn't OK, but it was OK."
Then, decades ago now, the ELC educators joined the university’s Professional Staff Union (PSU), with seniority-based pay increases built into their contracts.
This past year, state data shows ELC's senior staff earned an average salary of around $65,000 — high for early educators, but still well below the UMass system's average salary of over $80,000 a year.
Williams stressed that she was working hard and growing over those 35 years, not just collecting paychecks. She said that's not what people sometimes think: “They kind of look at the people that have stayed at a certain job like they're not growing. But you can stay at a job and grow.”
ELC staff take lots of workshops and courses — plus, she says, toddlers keep you moving.
Having a well-trained, veteran staff of early educators on campus might have been judged a worthwhile amenity for a growing commuter campus like UMass Boston.
But in these dire fiscal straits, it's probably those things that made the ELC a target for closure. Plus university statements have pointed out that few in the UMass community were using the service — it served many neighborhood children — and that it drained half a million dollars a year from the school's operating budget.
Altogether, nearly half of the 44 layoffs — 21 employees — hit members of the PSU. Almost two-thirds of those have worked at UMass Boston for 15 years or more.
Union president Tom Goodkind said he was shocked to find that 19 of them were women — this from a union whose membership is only 62 percent female: "That's a pretty outrageous discrepancy there."
Goodkind is a firebrand fixture at "Save UMass" protests. And he has a guess as to why that gender gap might exist.
Senior employees certainly earn higher salaries, he conceded. But Goodkind also sees managerial bias, conscious or not, at work in the selection: "a kind of a prejudice against these long-serving women who’ve really made this campus run.”
'A Painful, But Necessary, Process'
UMass Boston administrators declined to comment for this story. But in a statement, they called the layoffs "a painful, but necessary, process" as they seek firm financial footing for the school. Interim UMass Boston chancellor Barry Mills has said this round of layoffs will save the university $1.8 million.
That seems like a small amount to some. Especially if it means sparing, for example, the longtime workers who are now facing a husband's chemotherapy bills or a child applying to colleges without a salary to rely on.
Advocates protested at a recent meeting of UMass's board of trustees. They asked that the board appropriate $5 million out of a systemwide reserve fund to save the jobs and stop future layoffs.
So far, the board has declined. University President Marty Meehan said that that appropriation could imperil the system's credit rating without fixing the school's structural deficit.
University officials say they believe UMass Boston has turned the corner. A number of highly paid employees also left through buyouts earlier this year. The many construction projects that have snarled traffic — and budgets — are supposed to be mostly completed by next academic year. And university officials saw a jump of more than 58 percent in deposits from freshman enrollees coming to campus next fall. They're hoping that trend holds.
But this time last year the university was confronting a projected $30 million deficit — and so the austerity isn't over. (The latest deficit projection is under $5 million for this year.) There have been lots of cuts to non-personnel areas across the board. In the past, Chancellor Mills, who will step down next summer, has raised the prospect of further layoffs.
That makes long-serving staff like Suddi St. Ives nervous.
She's an evaluator in the office of graduate admissions, and has worked at UMass Boston for 26 years. She said she's "being stoic" on behalf of the two women in her office who were laid off in November. But when asked how she's feeling about the change, she opened up: "I have an awful feeling that I'll probably be next."
St. Ives is 64, and so she's worried she fits the profile of workers laid off so far. She hopes to make it to 30 years so she can collect a bigger pension, but she isn't feeling hopeful: "I seem to be the [kind of] person that they're looking to dump."
Back at the ELC, the kids have their own questions about why they have to leave, Williams said: "They question where did so-and-so go when and why. And we keep talking about it and you know trying to make them comfortable with this change." Staff solutions include reading "Llama Llama Misses Mama," a picture book about going to a new school.
As for the grownups, they say they're deeply wounded by the university's decision to end their work. But most say they don't regret having joined the UMass Boston "family" — a word many use — all those years ago. And they're looking for silver linings now: a chance to rest, reevaluate, and keep growing in 2018.
This article was originally published on December 22, 2017.
This segment aired on December 22, 2017.