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JSD board laments para cut, could look at options

Posted: March 9, 2012 - 1:07am

Several members of the Juneau School District Board of Education are quite uneasy with the half-hour cut from special education paraprofessional hours and want to see if there is a way of picking something else to cut.

The budget committee is at the end of a process that pared more than $5 million from the JSD budget to meet a deficit largely caused by ending of grants. Board member Mark Choate said he was surprised that the half-hour cut from those hours means that those employees will go from full-time status to part-time status. That equates to not only a pay cut but also a loss in benefits. Both board member and para educators said during budget committee meetings that the district has historically had a difficult time recruiting and retaining para educators and that this change would make it even worse.

Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich told the board at Tuesday’s meeting that this process was incredibly difficult. He said when the administrative team started working on picking things to potentially cut, they spent hours on it and only came up with $1 million of cuts from initial ideas.

“We heard the testimony, we agree with most of the testimony,” Gelbrich said. “There’s just not another place for us to go that doesn’t have an equal or greater impact on students. We tried again to reduce the impact on classroom. We’re keeping the cuts as far away from the classroom as we can. The greatest impact on any given building is the district office.”

Gelbrich said the fact that the proposed cuts include an increase in Pupil-to-Teacher Ratio (PTR) by two — after already raising it by one last year — shows where the district is in the process of cutting.

Gelbrich said one change since the budget committee finalized the budget is that the potential add-backs for PTR have been broken down into half-points, so that decreases in class sizes can happen incrementally if more funds are available. That was the suggestion of teacher and committee member Michael Heimann.

“The budget proposal is as distasteful to us as it is to you, as it is to the people who have testified for the last three months,” Gelbrich said. “It is not a budget we can be proud of.”

Choate said he is pleased with the direction the budget process has gone in the past several years, and this year’s the best presentation he’s ever seen. Choate said there still needs to be more done in future years.

“It’s our job to make the budget,” he said. “At a fundamental level that’s our most important job.”

Choate said they should decide what to fund and what should go, however the budget proposal the administration prepares for them to decide on only includes projected cuts up to the amount of the deficit. It doesn’t prepare any options for cutting ‘X’ instead of ‘Y’ to balance the budget.

“I suggest to not accept all of the administration’s recommendations,” Choate said.

One concern of his was with cutting even two nurses because of data that shows that school nurses are many children’s primary health care provider.

Another was cuts that affect music and arts — specifically the .5 Full Time Equivalent positions being cut from all elementary schools and one art specialist.

“After thinking about this, I’m comfortable that our arts and music programs are not extra,” Choate said. “They are an essential component to teaching our students to be good citizens. I will be making an effort to have us revisit the K-12 music and arts curriculum. I would argue against cutting art instructors and music programs, especially half-time at the elementary school. It has a proven benefit to our kids. I believe that students who are involved in arts and the music are better students.”

He also wants to see the assistant superintendent position retained.

“There is value in good administration,” Choate said. “There is value in quality management within the school district. I will be the first to call them on it when I think it’s deficient. I don’t go anywhere without seeing Laury Scandling. She is providing that certain glue across the community.”

While most board members agreed, they didn’t go so far to support reinstating the position, given other cuts.

Choate also advocated strongly for the retention of para educators.

“I wasn’t happy about that, but I could live with that until I realized that changes those people from full-time to part-time,” he said. “We set an example by what we do, that includes how we treat our employees. They are some of our lowest paid workers, and they are essential. They are extraordinarily talented individuals.”

Cory Crossett, a teacher at Montessori, said this will greatly impact actually keeping para educators in the schools.

“This is Juneau,” he said. “It’s really hard to keep good people. If you have good work ethic and a clue, it is really easy to find a job in Juneau. I personally know for a fact several of the long-term paras I know who have been there day after day, year after year will evaporate. We’re going to save a few bucks, but we’re going to turn the revolving door into hyperdrive and the kids who need the help the most will suffer for it.”

Board member Barbara Thurston believes the district will be better off not cutting para educator hours. She also agreed with Choate about arts and music, saying that Glacier Valley’s Juneau, Alaska Music Matters program gets the district more educational kudos than anything, however she questioned whether it was actually an intervention.

Board member Kim Poole said she was 100 percent with Choate, which caused him to raise his eyebrows in surprise.

“But I am also a process person,” she said. “... I keep coming back to equity, because the school board keeps coming back to equity. In equity to the para educators of losing their benefits by that .5, I can’t deal with that. I really cannot deal with that number of people losing that portion of benefits when benefits are why quite a few of us work where we do. It seems to violate every ethical fiber in my body.”

The board, while not voting either way on it, asked administration to come up with a couple of items as “cut instead” options as it generally favored para educator and music/arts restoration — but also including the value of the new options. Thurston also suggested Gelbrich add comments like if he felt it shouldn’t be cut, why he wouldn’t recommend doing so.

Scandling was concerned with the process, because any new proposed cut will have less vetting to the public — and those who have a large stake in being cut — may not have sufficient time to respond.

Board members did not agree to a work session, as proposed by Choate. It felt that even though the budget is due to the city on March 31 (JSD’s last meeting on the topic is March 27), it will still be readdressing the budget in April once the legislature finalizes any educational funding related bills.

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@juneauempire.com.

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