Ledyard - Several dozen community members showed their support for the school district's paraprofessionals at Wednesday's Board of Education meeting, calling recent cuts to their hours a blow to students, faculty and the reputation of Ledyard Public Schools.
On Dec. 18, at her last school board meeting as former Superintendent Michael Graner's deputy, Cathy Patterson called those 102 staff members affected by the reductions "team players." Attending her first meeting as the new superintendent of Ledyard Public Schools Wednesday evening, Patterson and the rest of the Board of Education listened to them - joined by parents, spouses and former teachers - voice their outrage.
Much of the ire was directed at an alleged lack of communication. Though Patterson said at December's meeting that she and Graner informed paraprofessionals of the cuts earlier that afternoon, those who attended Wednesday's meeting said only the paraprofessional representatives - one assigned to each of the district's schools - were invited to a meeting after the close of the work day with the top administrators, hours before the Board of Education made the decision final. Lori Burton, the paraprofessional representative for Gales Ferry School, said they were told not to attend that night.
Most found out the next morning after reading about it in The Day, they said.
Gordon Strickland, chairman of the board's Finance Committee, told school officials at the December meeting that years of flat-funding and reductions had finally caught up to them, leaving the district with a projected $116,000 deficit. Other factors were an unexpected increase of about $85,000 in magnet school tuition - the amount the town pays for students to attend out-of-district schools - and decreasing state support for special education.
At this point, officials had already frozen all discretionary spending in the schools' $29.7 million budget, limiting expenditures to basic supplies and maintenance. Money slated for items such as new textbooks had already been applied to the original $270,000 shortfall Patterson has called "unprecedented." Only salary accounts remained.
After some board members expressed their dismay, they approved the cuts in a 5 to 2 vote. The reduction in hours would go into effect Feb. 1, giving administrators a month to prepare teachers.
Except for four exempt staff who provide direct support to students with special needs, no paraprofessional will work more than 29 hours per week, with most seeing a two- to three-hour reduction. Others face a steeper cut of anywhere from 4 to 10½ hours a week.
Along with a reduction of $17,000 in teacher turnover and a $4,400 reduction for tutors, Strickland estimated a $96,000 savings by June. There is no plan to address the remainder of the projected deficit.
"We believe we can still maintain the teach and earning program if we reduce the paraprofessional budget by half a percent," Patterson said, adding, "It might have been one of the least impacting things we could do."
The district's paraprofessionals received their first raise in two years this academic year and make anywhere from $10.67 to $16.25 per hour, depending on how many years they've held the job.
Staff members and their supporters trotted out a list of criticisms, calling the lack of proper communication disrespectful, and pointing out that other faculty and staff are protected by unions, while paraprofessionals are the lowest-paid employees in the district. Others offered praise and gratitude - some from tearful parents whose special-needs children rely on their paraprofessionals through every step of the school day.
The district's paraprofessionals are largely part-time employees charged with a range of responsibilities, depending on students' needs. Some aid kindergarten teachers, some work with students who are behind in literacy skills, and others act as full-day chaperones for students with disabilities, helping with class work, supervising lunchtime and recess, even changing batteries in hearing aids or, as the case may be, diapers.
Stacy Stahl, a former first-grade teacher for 13 years at the Gales Ferry School, called the paraprofessionals she worked with a "godsend" and an indispensable part of her classrooms over the years. Stahl said they are needed more than ever now with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, and questioned why central office salaries went untouched.
"You can't possibly understand the important role that our paras play in our school system, especially at our elementary level. Otherwise, you never would have made that decision," she said.
Prior to the meeting, Patterson said that reducing teacher or administrator positions or salaries was never considered.
Burton recalled the meeting last year with Graner when he informed them of their raises, quoting him as saying their pay was upgraded from "awful" to "very bad."
That raise is moot now, she said. They will all be making less money this year than last.
"Most (paraprofessionals) don't even work 30 hours. Most live paycheck to paycheck," she said. Referencing Patterson's description of the budget situation, Burton added, "These cuts will truly be a fiscal crisis for us."
Noting that it is not the board's policy to respond to comments made during the "requests from citizens" slot on the agenda, Chairman Julia Cronin said she wanted to emphasize that the "vast majority" of paraprofessionals - 82, according to Patterson's memo - will see a reduction of a half-hour per day, adding that Patterson will continue to meet with the representatives to keep them updated.
"Our first priority is special education service hours and the safety of our students," Cronin said.
After the meeting, Patterson said she was glad the paraprofessionals attended and expressed their concerns, and promised to work with their representatives to "make this as doable for our children as we can."