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New London – Parents of some first-graders who attended Thursday night's open house at the Nathan Hale School expected to find a classroom decorated with colorful wall hangings and a smiling teacher to greet them.
Instead, they found a bare classroom with boxes on the desk and no teacher.
This class is one of a handful of New London school classrooms that could start the new school year Monday without a regular teacher on hand.
Late summer departures by teachers left the district little time to fill the positions in time for the start of the new school year, Interim Superintendent Richard Foye said Friday. The first-grade class at Nathan Hale will start with a recently retired teacher serving as the temporary substitute teacher, Foye said.
The issue turned controversial when Reid Burdick, a former Board of Education member and grandparent of a girl slated to attend the Nathan Hale first-grade class criticized school officials for leaving parents and students in confusion Thursday night. His son, Jonathan Burdick, publicized the issue on Facebook and elicited comments on the topic.
"Most teachers go in a few days before and get their classrooms ready, and everything looks nice," Burdick said. "This classroom, there were boxes on the desk and there clearly is no teacher for that classroom."
Foye said he spoke to Burdick Friday morning. Foye, who did not attend the Nathan Hale open house, said that at the start of the open house, parents of students assigned to the classroom in question were told of the vacancy and were instructed to go to the neighboring first-grade classroom to learn about the curriculum and activities planned for the school year. Parents who arrived later could have missed that instruction, Foye said.
Foye said the district probably had "a handful" of classroom teacher vacancies as of late this week. The number shrinks daily as positions are filled, and interviews continued on Friday.
"Anytime you have an August resignation of teachers, the turnaround takes time," Foye said. "You want to be prudent and get the best teachers. We have good teachers who are attractive to other districts. When that happens in August, it makes it more difficult."
Burdick said the immediate problem is indicative of a lingering, more serious issue that New London's teacher pay scale and longer retirement track discourages teachers from coming here. And good teachers in New London seek to leave, he said.
"I must say I was disappointed going into a classroom that was not ready to go," Burdick said. "What you're looking at here is a systemic problem that has come home to roost."