SCHOOLS: Board asks guidance, math help from ‘bonus’ — (Acorn Press)

Original article no longer available

Acorn Press

Aug 17, 2007

By Macklin Reid, Ridgefield Press Staff

An ex-teacher’s heart-numbing recollections of a student suicide fresh in their ears, school board members voted 6 to 2 Monday night to push for a town meeting that would spend half of the town’s $600,000 Educational Cost Sharing grant on a list of educational programs.

The priorities ranged from reducing pay-to-play fees charged to high school athletes  – ­ the new superintendent recommended eliminating them –  to increasing the hours of math paraprofessionals in the elementary schools and undertaking some school security projects.

But a clearly painful memory was raised by board member Bob Cox to put the weight of a real events behind the idea of adding guidance staff at the high school in order to improve a situation in which some counselors are carrying loads of some 300 students each.

“About a decade ago I had a student commit suicide,” said Mr. Cox, a retired English teacher at Ridgefield High School and former longtime department chairman.  “This student had just switched her antidepressant medication,” he said.

No one can or should be held to blame in such a situation, he said, but it’s hard not to be haunted by the feeling that the student “fell through the cracks” without adults at the school doing all they could have if they’d known more ­ as might have been the case if the staffing were better.

“My last conversation with that student was about a late paper,” Mr. Cox said. “If you don’t think for the rest of my life…

“No guidance counselor can appropriately counsel 300 students,” he said.

“If you lose one ­ this was someone who really could have been an extraordinary contributor to our society.”

He contrasted the $90,000 guidance department increase to much larger sums the board anticipates spending in the next few years on “school security” improvements designed to address anxiety about terrorism and the nation’s growing list of “school shooting” incidents.

“Those are worst-case scenarios. They’ve happened in the county, but they haven’t happened here. Students have fallen through the cracks here,” Mr. Cox said.

He added, “I spent the last five years of my career feeling I failed.”

From the cut list

Most of the priorities in the school board’s list were cut from the budget last spring following the finance board’s $1-million reduction to the school board’s $73-million budget request.

The town is receiving about $600,000 in state Educational Cost Sharing grants that weren’t figured in as revenue when the budget was put together. Now that the state has come through with the higher school grant, the money takes on the character of an unbudgeted windfall.

Monday night the school board approved Katherine Fischer’s motion to request that of $298,000 of the “ECS money” be spent on four educational priorities:

  • $90,000 on the high school guidance department ­ enough to add a full-time counselor and half-time clerical worker to the staff ­ as proposed during the budget presentations;
  • $78,000 to boost the elementary schools’ “math paras” from half-time to full-time;
  • $75,000 for school security projects recommended by a consultant after a “security audit” of school buildings and procedures;
  • $55,000 to reduce the pay-for-play fees charged to high school athletes.

From the school board, the spending proposal will go to the selectmen and Board of Finance, and then a town meeting for voters’ approval.

Selectmen’s concerns

In late June the board had asked the selectmen for essentially the same request with a quite similar list of priorities. In July the selectmen asked the school board to rethink its plans for spending half of the $600,000 unallocated state education money.

The selectmen said they’d prefer that any additional spending be devoted to priorities that didn’t involve new personnel ­ plant improvement projects, capital equipment purchases and the like. The selectmen were wary of enlarging a school payroll that will inevitably form the baseline for next year’s budget calculations.

Superintendent Deborah Low, who started in July, told the selectmen then that she’d like to review the matter with the Board of Education, which had made its initial request before she was officially on the job.

No ‘pay for play’!

Monday Ms. Low offered her own recommendation. “Eliminate pay-for-play fees,” she said. “My rationale being, it was a budget driver that necessitated the pay-for-play fees, and our increased state funding provides us an opportunity for getting out from under that.

“I think this is a great opportunity,” she said. “This is my personal recommendation as your superintendent.”

The pay-for-play fees run over $225 a per sport, and amount to about $300,000 a year in non-tax revenue that supports the schools’ $1-million a year athletics budget. Sports parents lobbied against the fees during the budget season.

Ms. Low’s proposal to use the full $300,000 to eliminate pay-for-play would satisfy the selectmen’s desire not to expand the head count of school personnel, though it might still be viewed as an increase in baseline operating expenses.

Board members said they shared her desire to attack the pay-for-play fees, which were adopted some years ago when a big hike in the school busing contract resulted in a small fiscal crisis for the schools.

Other priorities

While counselors overseeing the freshman transition and college application process had smaller loads, counselors overseeing students’ middle high school years were responsible for as many as 300 students each ­ far too many, Mr. Cox said.

The addition of a tenth counselor in the department could reduce those loads by about 20 students each, the high school’s principal, Jeff Jaslow, told the board.

“I agree with Bob,” said Katherine McGerald. “I’d also apply that to the math paras. They were taken out at the same time the pay-for-play fees were instituted, so they kind of go together.

The math paraprofessionals are teaching aides in the elementary school who help kids who are having trouble with math.

“We’ve had math issues in this district,” Ms. McGerald said.

Maureen Kozlark noted that although sports parents had railed against the pay-to-play fees, there was no evidence that added costs were discouraging kids from signing up for sports.

Board Chairman Keith Miller understood the selectmen’s concern about adding positions to the payroll. Based on rough figures turned in as part of the new three-year budgeting process, he said, town officials were now projecting a 2008-09 budget increase of 6.4%.”

“If we spend more now, when we come forward next year with ‘we’ve got new ideas,’ we’re going to run up against traditional constraints,” Mr. Miller said. “…They were far more amenable to supporting capital items.”

“And you haven’t helped anyone in math and you haven’t helped anyone in guidance ­ come on!” Ms. Kozlark said.

Austin Drukker proposed a compromise in which the guidance counselor would be made a half-year position ­ giving the administration more time to plan how the position would be used ­ and the $45,000 saved would go to buy items on a long deferred list of needed capital equipment, such as replacement of kitchen freezers and major heating plant parts.

Ms. Kozlark didn’t feel the school board’s requests should be tailored to the perspectives of the selectmen and finance boards

“Looking at what the students need, that’s what we need to do,” she said.

Mr. Miller didn’t see the benefit of pushing for a spending increase outside the normal budget cycle, despite concerns raised by the selectmen and finance boards.

“This is not going to work and it will be a massive and detrimental distraction,” he said.

The vote was 6 to 2. Ms. Fischer, Ms. Kozlark, Ms. McGerald, Mr. Cox, Scott Mason and Sandi Rose were in favor of the motion. Mr. Miller and Austin Drukker were opposed.

“Given your lack of enthusiasm, do you feel comfortable advocating for this?” Ms. McGerald asked Mr. Miller.

“I don’t know the answer to that question at this time,” he said.

“Thank you for your honesty,” she said.

“When?” asked Ms. Kozlark.

“This week,” Mr. Miller said.

Board members agreed by consensus that if Mr. Miller felt he couldn’t be a forceful advocate for the spending plan, the vice chairman could take on that role.
© Copyright 2007 by Hersam Acorn Newspapers