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More funds, fewer educators? What's up?

June 14, 2000

After a May 23 budget hearing that featured one speaker after another pleading for increased school funding, the three Washington County Commissioners who backed raising taxes to support education went back and had county staff scour their budget for another $630,000.

Finding that cash meant the county could take advantage of the governor's offer to kick in 1 percent for teacher raises if they locally funded a 4 percent hike. It also meant the school system will get almost $65 million of the county's $121 million budget - almost $5 million in new money this year.

But two days after the three commissioners did their heavy lifting, fiscally speaking, school officials announced they were laying off 27 Title I instructional assistants, including some at schools with some of the most economically disadvantaged students in the county.

These are the children who come from families where nobody ever reads a book to them, where no one has taught them the proper way to behave in a group and where problems at home, like Mary's little lamb, follow the children to school, often with unhappy results. The IA's effectively reduce class sizes by allowing teachers to spend more one-on-one time with those who need extra attention. Without them, one disruptive child can bring the whole process to a screeching halt.

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Though the IA's are part-timers who don't get any benefits, the system said that the cost of increased salaries and medical benefits for full-time personnel were to blame.

It was not a popular move, prompting a grievance from the Educational Support Personnel's Local No. 1, whose president, Bonnie Parks, says school officials didn't follow the seniority list. And while the three commissioners were taking a wait-until-we-get-some-more-facts stance, they weren't happy.

"It concerns me anytime we're losing positions, and the next time we sit down with the school board, we're going to ask them about it," said Commissioner Bert Iseminger.

Commissioner John Schnebly also said he wanted more details, in part because the prospect of losing the IA's was not part of any previous discussion between the two groups. Commissioner Paul Swartz was more suspicious, saying it seemed like a "gimmick" in which the schools were cutting a needed service to prompt the county to come up with additional funds.

Marie Byers, a long-time school board member, said the board had not actually voted on a layoff, but administrators told her it was necessary, because, they told her, "teachers are more important than aides."

In years past, Byers said, the board has taken money out of the general operating budget to fund Title I expenditures, "and other counties do that all the time."

Paul Bailey, the board's president, said that doing that had not been considered, because the board's number one priority had been getting enough cash together to get the governor's matching teacher-salary money.

As for the transfer of funds, Bailey said "Quite frankly, as a fairly new person (on the school board), I was not sure you could do that. But as we go back for a final look, several board members want to do that."

At the board's final budget session this past Monday, board members I spoke to, including Dori Nipps and Ed Hayes, expressed regret, but basically said nothing could be done. If you raise salaries and don't increase the size of the pot enough to cover them all, Nipps said, then something's got to give.

But Byers, a 30-year veteran of the school board who's facing her last budget, was not so accepting of what other members said were the fiscal realities.

After casting the lone vote against the budget, she made a short speech decrying the action, saying that "our not supplanting federal funds is denying services to children."

And in a reference to the fact the Salem Avenue Elementary School will lose IA's, Byers said that had the board taken such as action five years ago, Salem never would have won the honors it did as a state and national blue-ribbon school.

Years from now, the effect of this cut will be felt, Byers said, perhaps when it's time to initiate the test that will determine whether students graduate from high school.

It's not at all certain that all of the 27 IA's will lose their jobs; local president Parks gives every indication she's ready to do battle big-time. Finding a sudden store of cash, as Superintendent Herman Bartlett did in May 1999, might be easier than the disruption such a fight would cause.

Will these cuts really hurt? As Byers said, it will take several years to figure that out. It may be a harmless change that teachers will compensate for, or it may be like the "whole language" program, which seemed like a great idea when proposed, but turned out to be a disastrous alternative to phonics. I still can't get past the idea that the three commissioners' decision to raise taxes and give the school system more money will result in fewer educators in the classroom.




Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.

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