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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, July 30, 2009
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUILDERLAND While the superintendent is questioning the worth of Guilderland’s teaching assistants, they have decided to speak out.
Until now, they have purposely kept a low profile, according to Pauline Myers, president of the unit that represents the district’s 210 teaching assistants.
“With the economy as tough as it is for families, we’re not earning a living wage,” she said of the reason why, after years of being underpaid, they are pushing now for a higher wage. “The children of many of our TAs, if they were the sole support for their families, would qualify for free lunches.”
Myers said that many Guilderland TAs have two jobs and all of them face new, more stringent requirements for certification. She says of the Guilderland School District, “I know it’s a tough time to find the money, but it’s tough for us to pay our bills.”
“By publicizing our plight,” said Elma Sprague, the secretary for the Guilderland Teaching Assistants’ Association, “we hope the community will contact the administrators and the board and let them know that the TAs should be paid equitably.”
The teaching assistants are at an impasse with a contract that expired over a year ago. Earlier this month, a fact finder, as part of the Public Employment Relations Board process, reported that Guilderland’s teaching assistants are paid substantially less than those in other similar districts and that they are also underpaid compared to other bargaining units at Guilderland.
The nonbinding report recommended a five-year contract that would increase their salaries to make them 80 percent of the average starting salary in the Suburban Council. (For the full story on the fact finder’s report, go online to the Guilderland archives for July 23, 2009 “Fact finder says: ‘Rectify salary disparity,’” at www.altamontenterprise.com.)
“Even if we got that 80 percent of the average salary, it would still keep us the lowest paid,” said Sprague.
“It was nice to know our perception was validated with the report,” said the association’s vice president, Cheryl Ainspan. “The disparity we feel with every paycheck is real.”
Ainspan, who teaches at the high school said, as a TA, she has encouraged students to get part-time jobs.
“More times than not, they’re making more money than the TAs are...They look to us as their mentors. It just doesn’t feel right,” said Ainspan.
The TAs are currently paid on a 25-step system, earning $9 an hour on the first step and twice that on the top step.
“Many of us are members of the community,” said Ainspan. “We pay the same taxes and have the same expenses.”
The teaching assistants are a separate bargaining unit under the umbrella of the Guilderland Teachers’ Association, which is affiliated with New York State United Teachers.
While the TAs are at an impasse in contract negotiations over their wages, their numbers are also being cut in the last decade from 300 to 210. The $85 million budget that voters passed in May cut 22 teaching assistants for a savings of nearly $500,000.
The superintendent, John McGuire, sees the two issues as separate.
“It’s easy for these issues to get mingled. They are discreet,” he said of salaries and numbers of TAs.
McGuire said he had shared the fact finder’s report with the school board, which will discuss it in executive session at its next meeting on Aug. 18. He declined commenting on specifics about the district’s position because the contract is under negotiation and because it would be “presumptuous” for him to comment on behalf of the board.
McGuire did say the fact finder’s report was “conscientiously done” and he was hopeful it would lead to productive negotiations.
On TA salaries, McGuire said that it is important to have a competitive position in the marketplace to attract the best possible people; “I remain committed to that,” he said.
That stance, though, is separate from the number of TAs, he said. “We do employ well more” than other districts, said McGuire. Other Suburban Council districts have just a handful, if that, of TAs.
He continued, “Sometimes, in this role, it’s necessary to ask uncomfortable questions.” The question, in the case of the TAs, he said, is “What is the return on our resources? Are more teaching assistants giving us better results?” McGuire allowed that the answer to those questions might be “in the eye of the beholder.”
He said that comparable school districts are getting similar or better results, based on standardized test scores, than Guilderland. “If the answer to the question is no,” he said, the question then becomes, “What might we be doing with our resources for a better return on the investment?”
The district, McGuire said, spends $3 million a year on teaching assistants, for their salaries and benefits, and it has to evaluate if the expense is worth it.
He added, “The district creates the positions of all its employees. It isn’t the responsibility of an employee whether a position has been created. These are good people,” he said of the teaching assistants, “who came forward in response to district advertising.”
The contentious subject was broached this past year during the budget process. The administration had initially proposed cutting 27 teaching-assistant posts. Ultimately, the board restored five of those posts, in a push led by board member Judy Slack, a retired teaching assistant.
Board President Richard Weisz had argued, unsuccessfully, that the cuts should be postponed for a year so that the district could use a shared decision-making process to arrive at the best solution. Several board members agreed that the cuts will change the nature of programs particularly the way reading and writing are taught at the elementary level.
The bulk of the district’s teaching assistants are used either in the elementary schools or helping special-needs students.
“It did seem to happen rather quickly, without shared decision-making,” said Sprague, who has worked for the district for 22 years.
She said the TAs had met with McGuire in December 2007, soon after he came to Guilderland, and he said then about the low TA salaries, “We are a people-driven enterprise...We want our people to feel valued...We need to be competitive and compensate our people equitably.”
Sprague recalled that McGuire had said the Guilderland TAs should be paid “in the middle” compared to other districts.
“We’ve always been told we’re valued...but telling us that and compensating us equitably are two different things,” said Sprague.
Responding to Sprague’s recollection, McGuire said this week, “It’s important to maintain competitive salaries for all employees. I still subscribe to that.”
He again stressed that pay is a different issue than number of TAs.
He also said that shared decision-making was not the right way to decide on the numbers of TAs to be employed. “I don’t think that’s the kind of issue for shared decision-making or for popular vote,” McGuire said.
He characterized such a process as, “When we all feel good about this, we’ll do it.” McGuire went on, “You’re not likely to get change that way...I see it as an administrative responsibility. You have to make the tough calls sometimes,” he said, as a superintendent.
“One of the reasons we have so many TAs,” said Sprague, “is because our district has chosen to keep our special ed. students in our system as opposed to shipping them out to BOCES,” she said of programs run by the Board Of Cooperative Educational Services.
“People move to our district because of the TAs,” said Myers.
“Our scores might be the same,” continued Sprague, “but that’s because we have TAs in classroom with special-education students.”
Asked if Guilderland has more teaching assistants than other districts because it has more special-education students, McGuire said that Guilderland was only “a little higher” than comparable districts with about 14 percent of its students identified as having special needs.
The latest school report card shows that, for 2007-08, Guilderland has a special education classification rate of 13.47 percent, compared to 12.6 percent for all public school districts statewide.
In the upcoming year, McGuire said, the district will be looking closely at its special-education services.
“Regardless of the percentage,” he said, “we’ll look more and more at intervention and prevention, using the RTI model,” he said, referring to Response To Intervention. The point of that model, he said, is to intervene to help students early on to “prevent problems later.”
The district needs to find out, he said, once students are identified as having special needs, “What is our track record of declassification and independence?”
He went on, “It’s not intended to be special education for life.”
McGuire concluded, “Those may be hard questions without quick and easy answers but they are important questions for kids.”
The TA leaders gave anecdotal evidence about students being helped early so that they could learn on their own.
Myers said an after-school math club started by Slack at Lynnwood Elementary preparing struggling third- and fourth-graders for statewide tests has been successful.
“In the kindergarten program,” said Sprague, “TAs work with students who need an extra boost, so, when we get to the first grade, there are fewer students who need help.” And those who do need help, she said, are functioning at a higher level than they would have been without the help in kindergarten.
“The earlier we start working with children,” said Myers, “the more cost effective it is in the long run.”
Told that the teaching assistants believe their early intervention allows students to be independent, McGuire said, “That’s clearly the goal. I’m not sure it’s the experience.”
He went on to say that Guilderland “more readily” than other districts requires teaching-assistant services in setting up individualized education programs (IEPs) for the students it has identified as having special needs.
“Does that result in earlier independence?” he asked, answering himself, “I don’t have data to support that.”
McGuire went on, “If that’s the case that there’s a dramatic impact for the good I’m all for it,” he said of employing large numbers of teaching assistants.
“But it gets back to that uncomfortable question.” The district, he said, needs to evaluate if the $3 million spent on teaching assistants annually is worth it.
He concluded, “We have to do what best serves the children while being accountable to the taxpayers.”
“I’m hoping, after these cuts have been in place a few years,” said Sprague, “we’ll see the impact and see how the TAs have been impacting the classroom and programs and how the cuts have changed the program.”
“I’m worried about the kids,” said Myers.
“More students will slip through the cracks,” said Ainspan.