Uncertainty about the future drove paraprofessional teachers fearful of losing their jobs to make emotional pleas Tuesday evening for alternative budget cuts by a financially challenged Flagler County School Board. But the “paras,” as they are known in the district, got no satisfaction: the School Board is not reversing its decision to plan for a lay off six of the paraprofessionals.
Adding insult to the potential injury of losing a job, the paraprofessionals expressed disappointment about a newspaper article speculating that disabled students might be better off without so many paraprofessionals whose attentions might foster a learned dependency.
Roberta Biannucci, a first-year paraprofessional in Flagler Schools, talked about her experiences, including three students who needed to be “toileted at the same time, because they don’t wait.” Those students need people to help them, she said. “We’re talking about people,” Biannucci said. “We’re not talking about books.”
“I am one of those people who get called in from a classroom to lift children up,” Beverly Miles said.
She talked about helping children go to the bathroom, changing a student’s pants so he wouldn’t have to go home with soiled pants, feeding lunch to a student incapable of otherwise eating and providing assistance needed to help another get out of a van. She said the paraprofessionals provide stability in the classroom for special needs students and the teacher.
“Don’t we care enough about our children to do something and to stand up and find a way to make this work?” Miles said. “We’ve been here for y’all. Y’all need to be here for us.”
Dire budget projections for next year prompted proposed budget cuts for Flagler schools. Even after planning to take $1.7 million from reserves, the district faces a potential $1.8 million shortfall. The situation will be even worse if a proposed additional tax of 50 cents per $1,000 of taxable value fails to win voter approval in June. The additional tax would add $50 a year to the tax bill of a person with taxable property of $125,000, minus a $25,000 homestead exemption.
Proposed cuts to close the $1.8 million gap included eliminating six paraprofessionals, which would save just over $100,000. Other cuts include eliminating Everest alternative school, at a saving of more than $500,000, and the elimination or downsizing of several programs. Another 20 paraprofessionals would not qualify for continued employment under a state funding formula. They’re not being cut next year. But they may be phased out in future years, if the district’s population remains stagnant, and especially if it declines, as it did in the current year (the district lost roughly 280 students of its 12,500-odd school population).
If the tax referendum does pass, the six paraprofessionals are likely to be recalled.
Speakers at Tuesday’s meeting also criticized plans to cut two adult education teachers (the adult education program is eliminating its culinary offerings in a cost-saving measure).
“Paraprofessional is an essential asset to the classroom,” said one seven-year veteran paraprofessional. “I’m worried during the summer that I’m not going to have a job. I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t feel appreciated.”
Marianne Manley, a retired teacher who continues as a substitute teacher and paraprofessional, said she was upset at the article, whose origin was unspecified, asserting a possible learned dependency. “I see a lot that goes on,” she said. “The people that walk in those shoes, they know what goes on.” She urged the School Board to “look for a way to keep these much-needed people.”
“I’ve worked with ESE children for 18 years and I’ve never been insulted so much,” Theresa Baker said. “I know some of my students are working at Publix because we push them to be something.”
Val Stinson, a teacher from Flagler Beach, was emotional as she spoke. Her daughter attends Oklahoma State University located near tornado-ravaged Moore, Oklahoma. “When we talk about money and cuts, to think we would take the lives of people over things,” she said. “It is something that is incomprehensible.”
School Board member Colleen Conklin said most of the speakers seemed to be veteran paraprofessionals who would likely survive the budget cuts because the most recent hires would be the first to go. Conklin suggested better communication with employees. Board Member Sue Dickinson fought over two previous budget meetings on behalf of the paraprofessionals, at times emotionally so, but she was outvoted.
Superintendent of Schools Janet Valentine said assistance would be available to all students in need, despite any cuts in staff.
“I don’t want any parent out there to be concerned” that if their child needs assistance, they won’t get assistance. Valentine said some people might have to be shifted around to meet all student needs.
Andy Dance, School Board chairman, thanked the speakers for presenting “some very heartfelt emotion.” This is the earliest the School Board has had to put together a proposed budget for next year, but there’s still time for some alternative, he said, because the fiscal year doesn’t begin until July 1.
“Everyone who works with us in the District should feel appreciated,” Dance said.
Plans to cut two adult education teachers also were criticized.
Barely able to speak above a whisper because of a sore throat, one woman said adult education teachers pay for themselves because of the class fees charged to students, but Valentine said the fees aren’t enough. “When we take a look at the revenues, it simply isn’t enough to support a full-time person with benefits,” Valentine said.
The explanation failed to satisfy Ranells Bauman, a school volunteer who attends adult education classes. “The classes I attend in continuing education are always full,” she said. Bauman said her teacher “is great.” She suggested scheduling more of the most popular classes.
“Most of the voters in Flagler County are seniors,” Bauman said. “You’re asking us to support the millage, which most of us would do, but you’re not doing anything for us. The continuing education classes are for us.”