If you asked U-32 students who is the most valuable member of staff, many of them would answer Jim Willis. Everyday students in math classes ranging from Algebra I to AP Calculus visit the Math White Table for help with tests, homework, or just to study. If you pass by, you can almost always hear Jim Willis telling his corny jokes to students as he helps them with homework. But with budget cuts, this will end.
Ever since the news was released about budget cuts and elimination of positions, rumors have been spreading around the school about why it’s happening, who it’s happening to, and more. Many people are angry, many people are scared, and many people are confused about exactly what is happening with the school, its budget, and the reduction of positions.
Every year around early October to mid-November, the School Board starts to discuss next year’s budget. In these meetings, the Board considers factors in the school and its community and comes up with a max increase the budget can meet.
This school year, the conversation started on December 5th, 2018. In that meeting, the board decided on no more than a 3% rise in the budget. With health and salary increases for all staff, the budget would have had a 4 to 5% increase, and to get the increase back to 3%, they would have to cut somewhere around $200,000.
From there, the board decided on some long term changes they had been working on. This included cutting support staff. That meant cutting food service positions, the white table, and six paraeducator positions.
The cuts of the food service positions and of the white table was a continuation of a process that had already been occurring.
Four years ago, U-32 also had science and English support. Similar to math white table, they helped kids with homework, quizzes, papers, etc. But because of attrition (not filling positions after someone leaves or retires) and budget cuts similar to the ones this year, these positions were cut and supplemented with the English and science teachers helping and supporting kids. The same goes for the food program.
But even with these cuts, the budget was still above the 3% increase. Principal Dellinger-Pate and Superintendent Kimball decided cutting some paraeducator positions would have the least negative impact on students.
Cutting paraeducators in this context follows the acronym, RIF (reduction in force). When cuts have to be made, they go by seniority. The paraeducator who has been here the longest goes on top, and “you go down from there and someone hired just this year would be the first one out,” says MaryEllen Hill, the representative for paraeducators at U-32.
The cuts affect the school in multiple ways. The first, most notable difference is morale. “People are disappointed. They feel like they’re not supported like there’s just that general feeling,” Principal, Steven Dellinger-Pate says.
The cuts will also significantly affect the ways in which the food service program and math white table are presented.
Teachers will have to step into the role of supporter for students struggling with classes, and this may put a strain on teachers and special educators. It’s “More work on our teachers who are going to have to work a lot harder to come up with differentiated instruction,” Mary Ellen Hill says. It will also be harder for special educators who may not be dual-certified to assist in many of the subjects paraeducators do.
But if these cuts weren’t made, the budget would continue increasing almost exponentially, and that would cause the taxes in our district to rise. Creating larger problems down the road.
One of these problems, which was a factor in the budget cuts, is declining enrollment. “We’re almost 40 students smaller than we were when the day I got hired,” Steven Dellinger-Pate said.
The school needed to do what one board member called “right-sizing the organization.” Making the organization the right number of staff appropriate for the number of students.
The news about the cuts did not start on the right track. On March 20th the school board voted on the budget, it was delayed because of confusion regarding Act 46. This delay meant Steven was unable to talk with almost everybody who would be involved in the cuts. And because of this, the budget and the cuts were published in a Times Argus article that Friday. The article stirred rumors and caused drama within the school.
Besides this, however, Steven has followed procedure. If they are being let go because of RIF they have to be notified before April 1st, and they have to let the union know so they can figure out contract details. “Our goal is to make sure that anybody who loses a position here that we support them in finding a position somewhere else,” Steven says. They receive strong letters of recommendation and the school calls to other schools in the district, asking if they have a position.
“None of these cuts were because people couldn’t do their job or didn’t do them well. These are all very good people doing very good work.”