After hearing much testimony from parents calling for the expenditure of $240,000 added to the budget for teaching assistant hours, the School Board voted 5-0 to fund aides in first grade classrooms only.
The allocation will support 1.5 hours of daily instructional help in first grade classrooms across the District at a cost of $60,000. The allocation does not completely restore the District’s $118,000 reduction in teaching assistant hours, which results in a loss of teaching assistant hours in second and third grade classrooms.
Board Chairman Steve Young said ultimately it’s the responsibility of school administrators to allocate the teaching assistant hours; so it is possible teaching assistants could be assigned to a second- or third-grade classroom, if needed.
“One of the things I was listening to back in the workshops mid-winter and subsequent meetings here is Kindergarten is in a different physical location. With kids making the transition to a different building, the first thing that comes to mind are those first graders,” said member Leitha Reilly, who proposed they use $60,000 of the $240,000 budgeted for teaching assistants to support first grade classrooms.
Reilly noted she is comfortable that there is a plan in place for the three elementary schools once the teaching assistant hours are reduced, and that the administrators of those schools have said they’re comfortable with the plan proposed.
“But I still hear concern from the public,” she said. “I would like to propose we allow the Superintendent and his team to implement their plan, but put some provisions in place so we get reports on how it’s working and put support at the first grade level, so there’s not as much concern that they’re going to a huge building from a small school.”
“I would support (Reilly’s) proposal with the caveat we continue to look at (Superintendent Nate Greenberg’s) proposal to determine how we would deal without assistants,” member John Laferriere said, noting he would like to see more detail, as well as metrics they can use to judge the success of the reorganization of staff in the schools to satisfy classroom needs that teaching assistants previously fulfilled.
Greenberg recommended reserving the remaining funds for unanticipated expenses, such as accommodating an increase in enrollment.
“I think a major portion of the money should be insurance money. If there’s a blip in enrollment, we could turn it into a teaching position, not dissimilar with what we have done in the past,” Greenberg said, noting continued growth in the north end of town that appears to be pulling in elementary-aged kids. “Any money left over at the end of the year would go to offset the tax rate in FY17.”
“In the four years I have been serving on the Board, there has never been more feedback on any issue. There wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t have an email on this topic in my inbox,” member Nancy Hendricks said, thanking parents and teaching assistants in the audience for their interest. “Thank you for that. We want people to be involved and get feedback.”
“This has been a struggle for me because I have appreciated all the conversations I’ve had in the post office, the grocery store, on the telephone. But at the beginning of this century, I made a promise to the voters that when enrollment decreased, if we could bring in aides, we would as a board reduce them as enrollment decreases,” Young said. “Although, many believe this is a mandate of the voters, it has been difficult because I already committed to it.”
Ultimately, the Board agreed to reduce teaching assistant hours, funding only 19.5 hours across the three elementary schools.
Following the vote, parents were visibility disheartened as they gathered in the hallway outside the Moose Hill Council Chambers.
“I’m so upset with the shortsightedness of this Board,” said Donna Traynham, a professional in education who has been a strong advocate for increasing teaching assistant hours in the elementary schools. “The $240,000 is a very small price to pay to make sure students have the resources they need.”
“It will be interesting in 12 years when all these first graders are graduating,” said Lucas Lafond, a sixth grader who told the Board at its April 20 meeting he wouldn’t be the successful student he is today without the individual attention he was able to receive from a classroom assistant.
His sister will enter first grade in the fall.
“We are asking teachers to do the impossible and passing on a resource that could help them,” Traynham said. “And the message they’re sending is teachers are just going to have to figure it out.”
Traynham is particularly concerned the Board has disengaged community members who took interest in the issue, voted overwhelmingly in support of funding the teaching assistants at the District’s Deliberative Session, then voted in favor of the overall budget with the additional funding for the aides.
Traynham said there are no plans to drop the issue of increasing instructional assistant time in the elementary classrooms.
“This is not over,” she said. “We will be at the School Board meetings in the fall and will present a citizen’s petition to put this back on the ballot to prove it’s what the taxpayers wanted. And we hope the community will come forward and give their support to it to show we were serious.”