Parents and members of the community expressed frustration after the School Board again continued a vote on the expenditure of $240,000 that was added to the budget at the District’s Deliberative Session for primary teaching assistants.
Chairman Steve Young announced the Board would not take a vote past 11 p.m. and needed time to digest all the information Superintendent Nate Greenberg and members of the public presented during the nearly three-hour deliberation.
The additional funding was added to the budget with the intention of restoring a proposed $118,000 reduction in teaching assistant hours and increasing the number of hours aides spend in first and second grade classrooms to three hours per day, an increase of approximately 1.5 hours.
Greenberg recommended as part of his proposed budget eliminating four elementary teachers and teaching assistants that remain in first and second grades, as well as several aides in third grade classrooms, to “right-size” staff as the District faces the challenges of declining enrollment.
Greenberg said he and school administrators looked at the instructional model, refined response to intervention, improved their ability to identify at-risk students and maintained a good student to teacher ratio – developing a plan that would deliver the same high quality educational services to students while reducing staff to address concerns related to long-term sustainability.
The new model is being piloted in classes at South Elementary School; however, the classes are still utilizing classroom assistants.
Member Leitha Reilly expressed concern for the student who may be struggling or having trouble listening, and said the decision “does weigh very heavily” on all members of the Board.
“I went to one of the schools and got a feel for what was going on there. We as a board are not educators, we’re doing the best we can based on the information we are getting from your organization,” member John Laferriere told Greenberg. “I need to know you feel comfortable with the plan you set forward and you feel comfortable not one kid will slip through the cracks. I understand dollars and mechanics are going on here, but we don’t want to jeopardize a kid’s future.”
Greenberg said he is very confident the reorganization of staff at the elementary level, as well as enhanced special education programming, will allow the District to continue to offer its high level of service to students.
“Can I guarantee no one will fall between the cracks? I don’t think anyone can guarantee that,” he said.
Member Nancy Hendricks asked Greenberg if he consulted with teachers about eliminating elementary assistants, noting she has spoken with teachers who have said they don’t know how they’ll manage without the extra help in the classroom.
“We had the discussion at the administrative level,” Greenberg said. “What we have been moving towards while enrollment drops is maintaining certified educators. What we have found is the number of kids classified as learning disabled has dropped. We think that has occurred because we maintained special education staffing, reading specialists and reading programs.”
Greenberg explained that teaching assistants were greatly needed when enrollment was high. As enrollment has steadily declined, the District thinks teaching assistant hours should be reduced to maintain certified staff.
“As we move forward and continue to lower the ratio of students to certified staff, we felt that it was the best direction to go,” Greenberg said. “I think when we designed the program, we wanted to maintain the quality of service we had, but we also have to be mindful of the costs and what costs down the road will be.”
According to the most recent figures from the State, Londonderry’s average cost per pupil at the elementary level is $15,181 – that’s $2,755 higher than the cost per pupil for the middle school, and $1,534 higher than for the high school. The average cost per pupil at the elementary level for the State is $14,200.
“Enrollment will continue to drop and we know we have significant building costs as we go forward,” Greenberg said. “We’re going to be experiencing hikes in health insurance and a loss of adequacy (payments). We have to somehow manage the costs moving forward.”
“With all due respect, $240,000 is to me a tiny step, miniscule in managing personnel costs,” Hendricks said.
But Greenberg argued they need to look at the entire picture when putting the budget together.
“I agree, $240,000 is not a huge amount in a $69 million budget. But along the way we have to make decisions. If there’s another way of delivering the service that’s as effective or more effective, we have to make that decision,” he said.
In addition to answering questions about the plan to reduce teaching assistant hours, Greenberg presented the Board with a variety of options for allocating the additional $240,000 for teaching assistants, ranging from allocating 13 daily hours of instructional assistant time and freezing $120,000 to offset the tax rate for FY17, to utilizing the $240,000 to hire three additional elementary teachers, which Greenberg said the District does not recommend.
Regardless of the Board’s decision, Greenberg said the administration remains committed to utilizing the instructional strategy proposed, integrating certified staff within each classroom, as they think the concept is in the best interest of the students. The assistants would work under the supervision of a team of the reading department, education support and classroom teachers in approximately one- to two-hour increments to follow through and assist students in reading, writing and math groups, depending on identified needs.
Hendricks and member Dan Lekas said while they respect Greenberg’s plan, they support adhering to the will of the people and allocating the $240,000 to increase teaching assistant hours at the elementary level.
“We are always complaining that no one ever comes to our meetings. Then, something finally captures the attention of the public and they went to deliberative session, they come to the meetings, they get involved, they ask questions, they take action, they mobilized, they enacted change, and for me to not listen to the people would be a slap in the democratic process,” Hendricks said. “For the last two meetings we’ve had discussing this, by and large, the numbers want us to reinstate assistants rather than not. These schools don’t belong to us, the administration or faculty. Our schools belong to the community, and I think our community is speaking to us and telling us the way they want education delivered.”
“I have to go with what the people want, and the people who voted for me 10 to 1 want instructional assistants,” Lekas agreed.
But Young expressed concern that “there’s an extreme danger” with using the additional funds for teaching assistant hours to satisfy the intent of the majority who proposed the budget amendment.
“By that logic, if we must do this, we must do a $10 million cut if it’s approved through a budget amendment,” he said.
“We have to watch out for the Town too. If we’re not careful how this goes, all of a sudden $11 million gets whacked out. Once that goes through, we’re living with it and we have to live within those means,” he said.
Members of the public disagreed, saying the community would never support a $10 million cut as they supported the $240,000 addition for primary teaching assistants.
“It’s not about the money, it’s about the kids who need the aid,” said Cherylann Pierce of 23 Mayflower Drive.
Tara Parisi of 3 Chestnut Hill Drive said she doesn’t understand why the Board wouldn’t use the additional funds to increase teaching assistant hours when the community has shown such overwhelming support for the expenditure.
Kathleen Sullivan of 52 Shasta Drive asked if funding the teaching assistants would be somehow detrimental to the program.
“No, but do I think we can provide a high quality level of services without the instructional assistant time, I would say yes,” Greenberg responded.
“Are we swapping out budget for quality here?” Reilly asked.
“I maintain that’s not the case,” Greenberg said.
Still, Parisi said members of the community “are willing to spend this money to have these additional hands in the classroom.”
“At the end of the day, we all want the best for the kids,” Reilly said. “I think what you have here, is, everyone agrees on the same goal. We just have a different strategy to get there.”