It appears that a public plea to retain a popular peer mediator at North Park Junior High School did not succeed.
Ronald Cheatham, a General Motors retiree who has been employed by the Lockport City School District for 14 years, had asked district administration to approve a change in his status from full-time to part-time, in consideration of his age, 62, and the fact that he can’t earn more than a certain amount of income without being penalized by the Social Security Administration.
His request was repeated and supported wholeheartedly by a room full of backers — students, parents and concerned residents — who packed the school board’s Jan. 22 meeting. The board did not address or offer a reply to the crowd’s requests to accommodate Cheatham during or after that meeting.
But Cheatham got his answer — no can do — during a private Monday meeting with school board President John Linderman, district Superintendent Michelle Bradley and Assistant Superintendent for Personnel Lisa Schrader.
According to Cheatham’s wife, Renee, administrators told Cheatham that his request for part-time status was denied. A peer mediator must be a full-time employee and union employees can’t work part-time jobs, they said.
Cheatham offered to leave the union and work the peer mediator’s post as an independent contractor, Mrs. Cheatham added — to which the administrators expressed concern about his requested rate, $12,000, not being in the budget.
Renee Cheatham is upset to think her husband’s proposal wasn’t shared with the rest of the school board. She says that she had been told the board would take it up in an executive (non-public) session.
“They find funds for the jobs that they feel are important enough, so obviously this job isn’t important enough to them,” she said. “Ronnie makes an impact on those kids. Even if it’s four hours of the day, four hours would be better than none.”
Cheatham has 90 days to work before he’s penalized by the Social Security Administration.
At the Jan. 22 school board meeting, district resident Paula Travis presented a box filled with 170 letters written in support of Cheatham.
“He is the epitome of our mission statement,” Travis told the board. “He teaches these kids about honor, respect. Sometimes he’s a father when they don’t have one. Sometimes he’s a mother when they don’t have one.”
While she believes the trustees weren’t listening to their views at that meeting, Mrs. Cheatham said she’s grateful to every person who went out and had their say.
“I’d like to thank them all for coming and showing up. What an impact it made on Ronnie,” she said. “It touched his heart to see all the people that cared.”
Ronald Cheatham has not discussed his dilemma with the Union-Sun & Journal directly. He’s just too hurt and upset by the district’s decision, Mrs. Cheatham said, adding that a suggestion made on Facebook regarding his motive for seeking part-time status is off base.
“My husband is not trying to double dip. This has nothing to do with the money,” she said. “This is about him being a positive impact in their (the students’) lives.”
Bradley sent a statement to the US&J late Wednesday night, saying “there has been inaccurate information circulated regarding the employment matter of an employee.”
“A longtime district employee requested the restructuring of his position to accommodate his personal circumstances. The restructuring request was reviewed by the Board of Education and could not be accommodated,” Bradley wrote. “It is important to note that the employee’s position is represented by the Lockport School Employees Association bargaining unit, and any restructuring potentially creates labor relations issues.”
Bradley added that Cheatham “is welcome to continue employment with the district for as long as he desires, and if the employee chooses to leave, the district does not intend to restructure the position.”
She concluded by saying that no further comment would be added since it is a personnel matter.
In addition to his work at North Park, Cheatham is active with Lockport New Beginnings, the organization behind the Young Men and Young Women of Character programs, and organizes Friday night open gym play at Emmet Belknap Intermediate School.