Instructional Assistants Advocate Against Proposed Cut in Hours

The School Board considered heartfelt testimony from instructional assistants in the School District last week, as they urged the Board not to cut their hours in the elementary schools as proposed in the budget.

Due to declining enrollment, the Superintendent’s budget calls for a reduction of 49.5 hours of daily instructional assistant time.

“I honestly cannot imagine a first-grade classroom without instructional assistants. First-graders aren’t independent learners,” said Annemarie Govoni, a Londonderry resident who has worked as an assistant at Moose Hill Kindergarten for four years and worked as an assistant at South Elementary School for 12 years before that.

Holly Gorgol, a Londonderry resident who has served as an instructional assistant at North Elementary School for 17 years, said classrooms in the younger grades are very busy, and an important job of instructional assistants is maintaining calm in the classroom and ensuring children “don’t fall through the cracks.”

“A lot of you don’t have the privilege to come into the school and see what we do, so I wanted to share a typical day with you,” said Patricia Kelly, a resident of Londonderry who has been an instructional assistant at North School for 20 years. “When they come in, first-graders are very busy. Our first job is to keep them in their seat and focused. Then we try to help with spelling and comprehension. We encourage a crying child. There is almost always a child right on the border who can’t get it, and we are able to give them a little more time. We help with cutting. We review weekly topics. It’s too much to ask a classroom teacher to do all that we do.”

Superintendent Nate Greenberg proposed staffing levels will remain sufficient to allow for special education assistants and other staff to assist in the younger classrooms when needed.

But Kelly said special education assistants are mandated to stay with the one child they are assigned to and generally wouldn’t be able to assist a child on the fringe who is overwhelmed with a task.

Additionally, board member Leitha Reilly said support staff who assist students with special educational needs coming in and out of the classroom can be chaotic in a classroom of 20 first-graders.

“I’ve been in those classrooms. I think the aides provide consistency,” she said.

The 49.5 hours of instructional assistant time proposed to be cut represents $150,574 of the total $563,473 in staff reductions proposed for the District’s $66 million FY16 budget.

Staff salaries represent the largest portion of the budget at 54 percent, a total of $36.1 million, with benefits accounting for 27 percent of the budget, a total of $18.4 million.

Instructional assistants do not receive benefits.

“If you want the bang for your buck, you’ll keep us there,” Kelly said. “My biggest thing is we want quality education here. Without assistants, we won’t have the quality of education my children had. It will be mediocre.”

“Please visit a first-grade classroom before you make the decision to eliminate instructional assistants,” Gorgol urged the Board and administration.

“To me, it’s what sets us apart from surrounding districts that don’t have aides because they don’t believe they need them,” Reilly said. “I have come to realize how difficult declining enrollment is and maintaining class sizes, but I still feel in a first- and second-grade class, 20 kids in a class is too many. I realize it becomes a question of, ‘where do we find the money?’ It’s something we’ll have to grapple with. As we move forward, I’ll be looking for areas where we can pay for this.”

“I know instructional assistants is a controversial issue. I looked at where I want to focus the dollars, and the way I looked at it was maintaining class size at levels at which they’re at with certified staff members,” Greenberg said. “To some degree, we have to look at the fact that we don’t have infinite amounts of money and ask how we can utilize funds to deliver top-notch service. The best investment was to maintain class size and services.”

Greenberg noted there needs to be a reorganization of positions and responsibilities to accommodate the cuts.

“It’s not just a case of let’s cut just to cut,” he said. “We’re looking to adjust the need for service hours to the number of students we have.”

Other proposed staffing adjustments include reductions of four elementary teachers, one middle school teaching position, three high school teaching positions, and 18 hours of special education assistants at Londonderry Middle School; as well as the addition of one Special Education Program Facilitator and one Special Education teacher for the Elementary Friends Program.

The new Special Education Program Facilitator is expected to cost about $101,000 with benefits.

Greenberg said the position is important to ensuring a high quality program that vastly reduces the need to place students out-of-District for services, which saved the District $8.9 million this year and over $61 million between FY06 and FY16.

Greenberg said the District has cut one teaching position for every drop of eight students in enrollment.

“As we go through this process, we’re trying to keep our eye on where enrollment growth is and trying to give ourselves some flexibility,” he said, noting the District has reduced staff by 21 percent since 2006. “We may hit a point down the line where we see an acceleration in growth, but right now we’re still in a downward trend. What we hope we have done is prove that when enrollment has dropped, we have had appropriate staffing adjustments. We hope that when enrollment goes up, we can add teachers and support.”

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