Columbia literacy, math coaches look to new roles after budget cuts

Friday, July 3, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
GRAPHIC: For the second year in a row, the Columbia Public School District cut positions as part of an overall budget reduction. The total budget reduction was smaller than the previous year, but the amount eliminated from paid positions for 2009-10 was slightly higher.

COLUMBIA — Denise Parker, a literacy coach for the Columbia Public School District for 18 years, watched half of the literacy and math coach positions get eliminated in last year's budget cuts. When the remaining positions were cut this year, Parker said she found herself in shock.

"I found out about the budget cut, but I never thought it was going to happen to me," said Parker, who will now work as a fifth-grade teacher at West Boulevard Elementary School. "We provide such a unique experience. I just never thought we would be cut."

Parker's job is one of the 71 position cuts that took effect Wednesday with the start of the district's 2009-2010 fiscal year. While these cuts spread across the employment board, the majority were elementary and high school literacy and math coaches.

Parker described her experiences in six classrooms a day — ranging from third to fifth grade — and how vital her interactions were with the other teachers and students.

"Teacher growth is not going to happen in the same way," Parker said.

Seventy-one positions this year — and 80 positions in 2008 — were cut in order to look a providing employee raises, which had been frozen since 2007, said Linda Quinley, director of business services for the district. The 2009-2010 position cuts will save the district $3.7 million.

Besides the literacy and math coaches, other positions eliminated included first-year instructors, temporary employees, teachers reaching retirement and a handful of janitors and secretaries, the board's Vice President Tom Rose said.

Position cuts were based on assessments made by the administration and head teachers in combination with the board.

Since the majority of the 33 full-time literacy and math coaches eliminated had master's degrees, tenure or both, these coaches were given the options to retire, work part time or return to the classroom as a teacher, Quinley said.

Like Parker, Christopher O'Gorman opted for a return to the classroom. The math coach, who split his time among Benton, Cedar Ridge and Rock Bridge Elementary schools for the past two years, said he was not surprised by the position cuts after the first round of cuts last year.

"I fully anticipated that that would be my last year as a math coach," said O'Gorman, who noted his surprise in keeping his job after the first cut.

O'Gorman will now be a fifth-grade teacher at Cedar Ridge.

Several school officials said the lack of coaches will be a notable absence in the classrooms.

"It will put more back on the classroom teachers," said Elaine Hassemer, head principal for the district and principal at Paxton Keeley Elementary School. "These positions did a lot for them."

Hassemer also discussed the impact these cuts will have on students.

"They're losing that expertise and added support," she said.

Chief Academic Officer Sally Beth Lyon, who deals with specialists such as the coaches, also noted their importance in the classroom.

"There's no question that coaching provided a valuable role in our buildings," Lyon said.

Heather Myers, a former curriculum coach of math and language arts at Two Mile Prairie Elementary School, lost her position and will teach first grade at Mill Creek Elementary School this fall.

"At first, I was very disappointed because I loved my position and working with the staff at Two Mile Prairie," Myers said. "Then I had a feeling of excitement. I can't wait to return to the classroom and implement all the teaching strategies and knowledge that I have gained over the past four years."

Myers, who was a first-grade teacher at Cedar Ridge for nine years and a literacy coach for the district for four years before becoming the curriculum coach, explained  how her experience will help her.

"I feel that being a coach and working with other teachers will make me an even better classroom teacher that I was before. I have a whole new perspective,"  she said.

Larry Jones, principal at Two Mile Prairie, said Myers had an impact on the school.

"She was an invaluable resource for our building," Jones said. "Her leadership, knowledge, coaching skills and professionalism are a major loss to our school and our instructional program. The literacy coach and math coach positions were an integral part of our school improvement plans."

Unlike last year when large position cuts were seemingly unexpected, the board let employees know much earlier if their position was at risk for being cut, Rose said.

Most employees who lost their positions this year were notified as early as February, said Jan Mees, president of the board.

When looking forward to 2010-11's budget, there is a possibility that more positions will need to be cut, but not be as many as the past two years, Mees said.

Laura Sandstedt, president of the district's Employee Organization, said in an e-mail that she's optimistic the district is on the road to recovery.

"Although we have had drastic budget cuts during the 2008-09 school year and now the 2009-10 school year, we know (the district) must operate a balanced budget in order to best meet the needs of today's students as well as students in the future," Sandstedt wrote.

Kim Weber, president of the Columbia Council PTA, said she trusts the judgment of the district.

"I know the district reviewed and looked at all the scenarios when deciding where to cut positions and hope that these will have the least direct impact on student learning and achievement," Weber said.

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