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Guilderland Archives The Altamont Enterprise, November 12, 2009
Jobs may go
By Melissa Hale-Spencer
GUIDERLAND Settling on a contract after months at impasse formed the background at last Wednesday’s school board meeting as teaching assistants heard a report that might foretell their future.
Although the teaching assistants will get more pay, they may, in the long run, lose jobs as new state requirements call for teachers, rather than TAs, to intervene earlier with struggling students.
After an 11-hour negotiation session, focused on salary, the teaching assistants and the district reached a settlement that Superintendent John McGuire told The Enterprise he would present to the school board on Nov. 17 for approval. An overwhelming majority of teaching assistants ratified the contract, he said.
McGuire said he was “absolutely pleased” with the settlement.
Cheryl Ainspan, vice president of the teaching assistant unit of the Guilderland Teachers’ Association also said, “We’re pleased.” She went on, “I think we did as well as we could, given the economic climate and the time that has gone by. We didn’t readily accept the small increases we had taken over the years.”
A fact-finder in July recommended a five-year contract that would increase teaching assistants’ salaries to make them 80 percent of the average starting salary in the Suburban Council.
“Reaching this goal also will give the Teaching Assistants a relative salary position consistent with nearly all other units in the district,” wrote fact finder Donna Trautwein, Ph.D. in her July 13 report. Trautwein was present at the 11-hour session that finally ended with the settlement.
The four-year contract is to run retroactively from July 1, 2008 to June 30, 2012. The teaching assistants are currently paid on a 25-step system, earning $9 an hour on the first step and twice that on the top step.
The new contract will gradually reduce the number of steps to 20 in the final year.
“It would take less time for a TA to earn a living wage,” said Ainspan of the reduced number of steps, which TAs climb through from year to year.
Under the new contract, for the first, retroactive period, first-step TAs will earn $9.70 an hour and those on the top, 24th step will earn $18.70. Then, starting in February of 2010, first-step TAs will earn $10.40 and those on the top, 23rd step will earn $19.40 an hour. In the next phase, through June 2011, first-step TAs will earn $11.10 and those on the top, 22nd step will earn $20.10. In the final year of the contract, first-step TAs will earn $11.25 and those on the top, 20th step will earn $21.25.
Additionally, the as-yet-to-be adopted contract will offer longevity pay, adding cents per hour for years served. Salary was the only major change, with health insurance remaining the same teaching assistants, like teachers, pay 20 percent of their health-insurance costs while the district pays the other 80 percent.
Compared to pay for teaching assistants at other Suburban Council school districts, Ainspan said, “We’re still towards the bottom but now we’re at the top of the bottom.”
She also said of the long negotiation process, “I think we’ve earned more of their respect. They see us now as a fairly well educated, committed group of people with a plethora of experience to bring to the classroom.”
The TAs have also sought public support in recent months and formed an awareness committee for community service that now, for example, is holding a “Toys for TAs” drive to collect holiday goods for needy children.
How many TAs are needed?
The proposed contract does not address the issue of the number of teaching assistants that the district employs. McGuire has long said that salaries for and numbers of TAs are two separate issues.
He said in July that the district spends $3 million a year on teaching assistants, for their salaries and benefits, and it has to evaluate if the expense is worth it.
“For teaching assistants and all bargaining units,” said McGuire yesterday, “I would want to see competitive salaries to recognize the good work of our people and to keep us competitive in the marketplace in the region.”
Guilderland has significantly more teaching assistants than other area schools. Some, like Shenendehowa and Schenectady, have none, but use aides or monitors, which do not have the same training and certification, with special education students instead.
Referring to the report presented at last week’s school board meeting, McGuire said, “Requirements will call for highly qualified, certified teachers” to work with struggling students. “This is the direction in which the district is moving, not just for compliance but for early intervention to reach the needs of our students from the earliest part of their school experience. We’ve begun to scale back on TA staffing and to invest in more teachers.”
The $85 million budget that voters passed last May cut 22 teaching assistants for a savings of nearly $500,000.
Asked if it wouldn’t be more costly to hire teachers than teaching assistants, McGuire said, that, in the long run, money may be saved with the early intervention plans by “getting ahead of that cycle of failure.”
As Guilderland schools comply with new state and federal mandates, “highly qualified teachers” will intervene to help struggling students, Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton, told the school board last Wednesday.
The Response to Intervention model, as the state calls it, must be in place by 2012, said Singleton.
“As a matter of law,” summarized board President Richard Weisz, “we might not be able to use TAs for things they’ve been doing for years and years,” regardless of how good they are.
At minimum, agreed Singleton, the teaching assistants in the Response to Intervention model would have to be supervised by teachers or specialists. Teaching assistants in the Guilderland schools now work primarily with special-needs students or with general-education students at the elementary schools. They work with students individually or in groups under the direction of a teacher.
Singleton said that Guilderland currently employs 210 teaching assistants although Ainspan questions that number. “I really think we’re closer to 180 or 185 with the layoffs and restructuring,” she said.
Singleton’s report last week included a regional comparison showing that Guilderland uses more teaching assistants than any other district. Only Niskayuna comes close with 144 teaching assistants for 4,300 students; Guilderland has 5,323 students. Schalmont uses just 11 and Saratoga just four teaching assistants.
Board member Barbara Fraterrigo said that half of all Guilderland teaching assistants have four-year college degrees and a quarter of those have master’s degrees. “We’ve been getting big bang for our buck,” she said.
“The difference becomes certification,” responded Singleton.
The state currently requires teaching assistants to have a high-school degree for a temporary license. A continuing certificate is issued once a TA has completed six semester hours of college study in a field related to elementary or secondary education and who has one year as a licensed assistant or as a certified teacher.
Ainspan said this week that the question she wished had been asked is: What percentage of special-needs students are mandated through individualized education plans at each of those schools. “Nobody asked about the numbers of special-needs students,” she said.
“One of the reasons we have so many TAs is because our district has chosen to keep our special ed. students in our system as opposed to shipping them out to BOCES,” Elma Sprague said earlier of the Board of Cooperative Educational Services. Sprague is a long-time teaching assistant and secretary of the Guilderland Teaching Assistants’ Association.
“People move to our district because of the TAs,” agreed Pauline Myers, president of the unit, in July. (Myers could not be reached for comment this week.)
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 schools.
“Our district’s 14 percent is a high percentage of identified students,” McGuire said yesterday. “Prevention initiatives should see that percentage come down over time.”
McGuire had said earlier, “It’s not intended to be special education for life.”
He concluded yesterday, “Proportionately, Guilderland has many more TAs, even on a per-pupil basis, than other schools do.”
Singleton, in his report to the school board last week, went over factors that have led to growth in “paraprofessional employment,” providing support services for students. More students especially immigrants, minorities, and those living in poverty are not meeting higher learning standards, he said. Also, he said, more students with disabilities are being educated in public schools, and more are being included in general-education classrooms.
Singleton also explained that schools are required to educate students in the “least restrictive environment,” and students with special needs must be educated with non-disabled peers as much as possible.
“We also know one size does not fit all,” he said. “The general classroom can be very restrictive.”
Paraprofessionals, like speech, occupational, and physical therapists, are needed to make general education the least restrictive environment, he said.
“For some children, the regular classroom becomes very restrictive,” said Singleton, so a continuum of services are needed, such as resource rooms where students get extra help.
Singleton presented a graph that showed, while general enrollment has declined dramatically at Guilderland over the last decade, special-education enrollment has increased. This means, of course, that the percentage of special-needs students has increased.
Even as student enrollment has declined over the last seven or eight years, Singleton said, generally the number of Guilderland TAs has remained steady.
Because the district must comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the need for intervention will become even greater in the next two to three years, he said.
Looking ahead, Singleton said, Guilderland will keep using cooperative and individualized programs to teach students and will “develop and sustain collaborative teaching models to maximize impacts of professional expertise on all students.”
Programs to help struggling students will be informed by data, he said, and progress will be monitored. A “tiered intervention model,” will be used, Singleton said, and “early interventions” will be “provided by qualified specialists.”
Following a “collaborative problem-solving model,” he said, general education and special education will work together. There will be a “blurring of lines,” said Singleton. “The two worlds must bridge.”