Literacy coaches, special educators among school budget cuts proposed

Tuesday, March 11, 2008 | 8:50 p.m. CDT; updated 10:50 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — Twenty-eight full-time positions in the Columbia Public School District are being looked at closely under a list of budget reduction considerations that were read aloud by Superintendent Phyllis Chase during Monday night’s school board meeting and posted on the district’s Web site on Tuesday morning.

Those 28 positions are being considered for termination in what were called the “Priority 1 cuts,” or $5.2 million in budget reductions that must be made in the school district no matter the fate of the 54-cent property tax levy on April 8. The school district has said $5 million must be cut due to increases in enrollment and costs in the past five years.

“Every one of these decisions were made sincerely,” said Lynn Barnett, the assistant superintendent for student services. “It was very painful to do the things we had to do.”

While the top-priority cuts can be substituted with other programs or positions, the total budget cut should equal $5.2 million. The school board now must pore over the document before deciding what cuts will be made at the March 20 workshop.

“It’s completely up to the board,” said Linda Quinley, the district’s director of business services. “We are expecting the board to digest this and then decide.’

School Board President Karla DeSpain said board members will weigh these choices carefully and will ask themselves one question to help make a decision: “Are these cuts where we expect them to be, where we want them to be?”

DeSpain said that while some recommendations were easier, such as eliminating indoor pay phones, she expected the board to face difficult decisions.

“There are concerns,” DeSpain said. “None of those are extraneous. Some are less painful.”

Among the positions cut are eight literacy coaches and 12 positions in special education in middle schools that would be restructured to save the district $200,000.

“I’ve already got e-mails from teachers saying, ‘Don’t take the literacy coach out of my class,’” DeSpain said.

Literacy coaches were included in the top-priority cuts because they were not intended to be permanent, DeSpain said, and it is hoped the program they established should be in place. Math coaches were not considered a top-priority cut because they have not been in the schools as long as the literacy coaches and needed more time to establish programs.

Currently, special education is set up in a team model that includes 19 teams of 120 to 125 students and 19 paraprofessionals, each one assigned to a team. There are also professionals assigned to the individual students. This model is unique to the middle school level, DeSpain said. After the restructuring, the remaining paraprofessionals will be assigned to students.

“We’ll assign a paraprofessional when a student’s IEP, the individual education plan, calls for it,” Barnett said.

Another cut to special education in the district would be a 50 percent reduction in the budget of the special education summer program at Newton Middle School. That cut would save an additional $118,000.

The “model school”, at West Boulevard Elementary also took cuts. “Model school” is a program that began in 2004 that provided extra resources and programs to enrich student achievement at West Boulevard Elementary. The program stands to lose more than $20,000 in its budget.

The district was able to cut almost $293,000 from the budget by eliminating certain stipends, such as stipends for supervising busing and detention and Superuser stipends for employees with a higher working knowledge of the district’s computer networks.

DeSpain said the loss of the Superuser stipend “was a little more concerning.” While she expected that those trained in the networks would still be available to answer employee’s questions, many questions would revert to Data Services, delaying the answers.

In the employee surveys released on the district Web site on Feb. 26, employees pointed at the Assessment for Learning, Positive Behavior Support and gifted programs as things they could do without. These programs were limited in the recommendations but did not take the biggest cuts in the “Priority 1” list. Assessment for Learning and Positive Behavior Support stand to lose one position each, and Positive Behavior Support may lose 10 percent from its budget.

“I think they (the surveys) were listened to, clearly,” DeSpain said.

Barnett said the surveys were a part of the decision-making process of what would be included in the recommendations, but the superintendent’s office also worked with each department head and principals in each of the schools. These administrators and principals, in turn, discussed the cuts with their staffs, Barnett said.

Second and third priority lists were reserved for deeper cuts, should the tax levy not pass. Those cuts included further position terminations and increased class sizes.

Barnett said the recommended cuts would have the least affect on essential programs and student achievement.

“We will continue to provide education at the level this community expects,” Barnett said.

DeSpain called on the community to weigh in on the lists during or, preferably, before the March 20 workshop. There is an e-mail address on the district Web site for comment.

“I expect everyone in the community will have an opinion about one of these or another,” DeSpain said. “We need to hear that.”

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