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Union Opposes Parent Volunteers in Petaluma, Calif.

Unionized school employees in Petaluma, Calif., some of whom were laid off, don't like the fact that parent volunteers are now doing the work they were once paid to do.

Is this a reasonable response to a dangerous precedent of replacing paid workers with volunteers, or is this a dangerous effort to stymie parent volunteerism when it is particularly needed?

"As far as I'm concerned, they never should have started this thing," Loretta Kruusmagi, president of the 350-member employees' union bargaining unit at Petaluma Junior High School in California, said of the parents. "Our stand is you can't have volunteers, they can't do our 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, according to Deputy Superintendent Steve Bolman. "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 and help a salaried librarian monitor students in the library but were blocked by union opposition. Those were duties performed by employees whose positions were eliminated when Petaluma cut $5 million from the 2009-10 budget and another $2.7 million from the current year, the local newspaper reported this week.

"My feeling is, you know what? I can go in there and do anything I want, as long as I'm helping," Cathy Edmondson, a parent volunteer, 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."

Calm and understanding are certainly called for. However, this is likely to be a situation that will happen around the country in the wake of school cuts. So, how best do schools address employees' concerns while protecting parents' rights to volunteer—this, at a time when parent volunteers are needed more than ever?

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