First, I’d like to say thank you to Dr. Lanoue, to the district office, and to the Board for providing this opportunity to speak. Also, thanks to everyone who has worked hard to create next year’s operating budget for the Clarke County School District. These decisions weren’t made quickly, weren’t made on a whim, weren’t made without careful deliberation.
Last week, and earlier this evening, Mr. Gilbert very thoroughly presented the financial challenges the district faces: decreased revenue and increased expenses. And in the Athens Banner-Herald, Myra Blackmon has tirelessly gathered and presented information to help explain the budget. It has been made clear why we cannot move federal money around to make up for deficits in our state and local funding.
It’s also clear that our school district’s spending needs to be more conservative now than ever before. Cuts must be made, and it is impossible for everyone to be satisfied with where or how the knife slices.
That said, it’s also clear to me that the most important factor to consider is how this budget impacts students.
While class sizes in our elementary schools are remaining fairly stable, this budget effectively decreases the teacher-to-student ratio in those schools.
Paraprofessionals are not technically teachers, but they are instructional staff. Students see them as teachers.
Paraprofessionals work with small groups of students, many of whom are still learning to work independently—and this gives teachers more time with the children who need the most attention.
Paraprofessionals provide students with one-on-one support when needed, just like teachers do.
Paraprofessionals help teachers with discipline, often keeping a few students’ off-task behaviors from distracting the rest of the class from learning.
Paraprofessionals provide supervision throughout the school day, including at lunchtime, when teachers are required by Georgia law to have a duty-free 30-minute lunch. How will this time be made up?
Many teachers already work extended unpaid hours to make sure they are providing the best possible instruction to our students. If paraprofessionals are cut, those teachers’ jobs will become much harder. How will this time be made up?
This is a problem, and its scope extends far beyond teachers’ personal lives or professional satisfaction.
What happens to students when teachers go from 50- or 60-hour work weeks to much longer ones?
What happens to students when teachers have no choice but to provide them with less personal attention?
What happens to students when teachers lack the support to differentiate for their learning needs?
What happens to students when we provide them with less supervision and fewer adult role models?
Some people have turned this into an us-versus-them debate, citing paraprofessionals’ relatively low pay compared to administrative staff and arguing for wholesale cuts at the top end of the salary scale instead. This is unfair. Making across-the-board cuts to district office staff would be a rash and unwise response to public outcry.
But if teachers must learn to do their jobs more efficiently, then so must we all.
Cutting all first-grade and media center paraprofessionals reduces expenditures by about $1.1 million. The budget under consideration also includes five furlough days for all staff making more than $35,000. This shaves another $870,000 from the district’s budget.
Could all staff take a few more furlough days?
As a Clarke County teacher, I would be willing to take extra furlough days if it would prevent paraprofessionals from being cut. I know teachers and school-level administrators who would do the same—not out of concern for their own jobs or those of their support staff, but out of concern for the children of Clarke County.
I am urging that this round of cuts be made with a scalpel, not with an axe: small cuts for all of us who can afford it, and bigger ones for those who can afford more; careful cuts that avoid amputating whole instructional limbs; careful cuts that minimize scarring our system and crippling our abilities to support our students.
Next year, it is likely that we will have to cut even more. If we do, I hope for and expect the same kind of careful consideration that we need right now. Not for me or for my job, not for the first grade teachers or for their jobs, not for anyone’s jobs—but for our students.