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An employees union at Petaluma Junior High School is protesting a program that places parents in volunteer positions on campus.

The dispute has left some potential volunteer opportunities unfilled.

The issue arose after the launch this year of a pilot program sponsored by the non-profit Healthy Communities Consortium that sought to place about 80 parents in key roles on campus.

In some cases, those jobs previously were done by employees whose jobs were eliminated by budget cuts. In other instances, the roles are new and identified by school officials as necessary.

Either way, classified employees' union president Loretta Kruusmagi is crying foul.

"As far as I'm concerned, they never should have started this thing," she said.

"Noon-duty people — those are instructional assistants," she said. "We had all those positions. We don't have them anymore, but those are our positions. Our stand is you can't have volunteers, they can't do our work."

Kruusmagi represents about 350 Petaluma school employees performing clerical, maintenance, custodial and other work.

It's not the first time that tough economic times have spurred a call to action among volunteers while at the same time igniting conflict with unions still smarting over job cuts, said Deputy Superintendent Steve Bolman.

"You can't contract out or have volunteers do bargaining-unit work," he said. "It's always an issue. It's nothing new, particularly at times when you are doing layoffs."

"It's not policy, this is law," he said. "(Volunteers) can't do work &‘usually, ordinarily or regularly done by classified employees.'"

But Bolman remained confident that a resolution will be had.

"Parents have the right to help out in the classroom and help their students," he said. "We have been looking for ways in which volunteers can help school districts."

The friction emerged when parents wanted to answer phones in the front office in the morning and assist a salaried librarian monitor students in the library before classes begin but were blocked by union opposition. Those were duties performed by employees whose positions that were cut when Petaluma lopped $5 million from the 2009-10 budget and another $2.7 million from the current year, Bolman said.

The debate doesn't sit well with Petaluma Junior High parent and volunteer Cathy Edmondson, who said she got pushback when she attempted to use the copy machine in the school office.

"My feeling is, you know what? I can go in there and do anything I want, as long as I'm helping," she said. "I guess the anger that I feel about it is even though the union has contractual rights to what goes on, they don't have the right to abridge my rights as a parent, volunteer and taxpayer."

"I was making copies in the copy room. My daughter frankly doesn't want me doing yard duty, so I have to help in less visible ways," she said. "There are tons of jobs that need to be done."

They will not be done by volunteers, Kruusmagi said.

"They are not going to have volunteers there at all," she said. "I can't cite the exact thing, but there are state rules. I believe it's in (education) code that volunteers are not allowed at schools."

Petaluma Junior High Principal John Lehmann said that parents have always supported sporting events and extra curricular programs, but getting volunteers during the school day has been a struggle.

Still, parent involvement plays a key role in school operations and student success, he said.

"It's a public school and they are mom and dad — they should be involved. There are different ways to do that; that is what we are struggling with," he said. "These are good people, no one is trying to play spoiler here."

School board members and backers of the volunteer program called for calm, saying an equitable resolution can be reached if both sides sit down together.

Lynn King, a parent of a Petaluma Junior High student and coordinator of the volunteer program, said she met with parent groups, staff and administrators last spring to identify where volunteers are most needed on campus.

The intent is not to step on toes but to fill gaps created by deep funding cuts as well as support junior-high age students who have a unique set of needs, King said.

"We're really only there to do what they told us (volunteers) can do. Our interest is the kids," she said. "Schools are losing personnel because of budgetary cutbacks, kids are being underserved by these budgetary cutbacks, so we are trying to do what we can."

"Whatever the issues with the unions are, we are just there to help," she said. "We are not there to create an issue with the unions and the school."

The issue is larger than the Petaluma School District, said school board member Mike Baddeley.

"The sticking point, the fly in the ointment, is the Public Employee Relations Board," he said. "It's not something so simple as sitting down with our public employees' union. It's bigger than them, that's the rub."

School board president Christina Kauk said the issue will get resolved and parents will remain an active part of campus life.

"It's absolutely essential and we rely very heavily on parent volunteers," she said.

"We need to have a conversation," she said. "Obviously the union is there to promote the position of those employees, to make sure nobody takes advantage of, or replaces, their positions and that is an important concern."