7/7/15 ABSS not looking for new TAs just yet

ABSS not looking for new TAs just yet
By Isaac Groves, The Times-News 7/7/15  
Reprinted with permission.

Tough negotiations expected in Legislature
By Gary D. Robertson, The Associated Press

 RALEIGH — Funds earmarked for school districts to hire teacher assistants are once again a sharp negotiation point between Senate and House leaders trying to hammer out a twoyear state government budget.

 The conflict again adds worry to thousands of assistants whose jobs could be jeopardized this fall.

 For the third year in a row, Republicans leading the two chambers disagree how much money should be allocated for these aides, which help teachers with instruction and keep the peace in classrooms. They sometimes even drive school buses and perform other duties.

 Senate Republicans skeptical of the value of assistants on student academic performance would in their budget cut funding for teacher assistants in half this fiscal year to $182 million and to $75 million for 2016-17. The House budget would keep assistant funding at current levels, or $375 million.

 Senate leaders, however, also would spend $273 million more over two years to hire more than 3,200 new teachers in classrooms for kindergarten through third grade. They consider lowering teacher-student ratios in early grades the path to improved student achievement.

 “We have a finite amount of money and we want to spend that money the best we possibly can to educate students in the classroom,” said Sen. Dan Soucek, R-Watauga, an education budget-writer. “We have not cut teacher assistant funding in the classroom as much as transfer this money to reduce class sizes.”

 The House has been more sympathetic to the value of assistants.

 “I support the TAs, I think they serve a vital purpose,” said Rep. Bryan Holloway, R-Stokes, another education budget-writer. Budget negotiations, expected to intensify next week when the Legislature returns from a break, are becoming harder to resolve over assistants, he added: “It is a tough nut to crack, and it keeps getting more and more difficult.”

 Two years ago, House Republicans initially proposed reducing teacher assistant funds by 4 percent annually, but the two chambers ultimately scaled back earmarks for assistants by 18 percent the first year and another 17 percent in the second.

 As a concession two years ago, lawmakers further loosened restrictions on money heading to the state’s 115 school districts so funds for personnel and instructional supplies could be shifted to almost any education need. Districts have even spent tens of millions of dollars earmarked for teacher assistants elsewhere.

 This flexibility makes it difficult to calculate how many assistants could lose their jobs should the Senate view win out.

 The General Assembly’s nonpartisan fiscal staff calculates the reduction as equivalent funding for 9,300 assistants by 2016-17. The Department of Public Instruction said there were 15,364 teacher assistants paid with state funds during the past school year, or a 32 percent decline compared to seven years ago.

 Some assistants have joined with liberal advocacy groups in holding events statewide accusing senators of wanting to lay off 8,500 workers.

 “Cutting 8,500 teacher assistants is not only going to hurt our students and our teachers, but it’s going to hurt us,” said Melinda Zarate, a teacher assistant at Friedberg Elementary School in Davidson County, after a Legislative Building news conference last week.

 Brady Johnson, the Iredell-Statesville Schools superintendent, said he doesn’t understand why what he called “draconian cuts” must continue given there was a $400 million budget surplus last year. Johnson said his district doesn’t have additional funds like larger systems to preserve his system’s 195 assistants should the Senate’s proposal prevail.

 “Who’s going to monitor the children on the playground? Who’s going to walk them to the cafeteria?” said Johnson, the North Carolina Association of School Superintendents president.

 The Alamance-Burlington School System is not looking for new teacher assistants yet and will not until the state House and Senate reconcile the differences in their proposed budgets.

 “There’s quite a discrepancy just in education,” said Alamance County Republican state Rep. Dennis Riddell.

 Teacher assistants have become an annual target for cuts. The Senate’s budget proposal would trim about 8,500 teacher assistants statewide over the next two years, according to the Public School Forum of North Carolina, in favor of adding teachers and reducing class sizes in kindergarten through third grade to 15 to 17 students per teacher.

 “All the research we have seen is that putting quality teachers in the classroom and reducing the size of the classroom has a great positive impact on student success,” said state Sen. Rick Gunn, Alamance County Republican.

 The district is hiring TAs for its exceptional children program and prekindergarten classes, according to Dawn Madren, executive director for human resources at ABSS, but is not trying to fill vacant positions left by teacher assistants leaving ABSS.

 “At this time we plan to wait and see what the final outcome is with the state budget,” Madren wrote.

 There were 203 elementary school teacher assistants in ABSS schools in 2014-15.

 Even without the cuts in the Senate proposal, ABSS’s budget already calls for 40 fewer teacher assistants. State funding for those positions went for classroom teachers in the state’s 2014-15 budget, but by the time that budget was approved last August, ABSS had already hired teacher assistants, said Bill Harrison, ABSS superintendent, in a budget discussion this spring. Those funds will go for 23 additional teachers in the 2015-16 school year.

 While few argue with smaller classes, Riddell said TAs stretch education dollars, calling them a “force multiplier.”

 “For what they are paid, they (teacher assistants) are one of the best values you have in a classroom,” Riddell said. “I think some of my colleagues misunderstand what teacher assistants do — they think of them as babysitters.”

 Jackie Cole, a member of the Alamance-Burlington Board of Education, said districts would be better served by a long-term plan to reduce class sizes, saying ABSS would have a hard time finding more classrooms for more teachers.

 “I don’t think they’re looking at this in the bigger picture,” Cole said. “We don’t have a lot of open classrooms.”

 Another difference in the budget proposals is drivers education funding. Gunn said state research shows there are not enough teenagers passing their drivers tests after taking drivers education classes. According to a 2014 report by the General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division, from 2007 to 2013, 46 percent of students who passed drivers education classes failed the DMV’s written test.

 “We have to improve the driver’s ed passing rate in our state,” Gunn said.

 One idea, Gunn said, is to move driver’s education to community colleges, which already teach truck and motorcycle driving classes successfully. There are a lot of teenagers wanting driver’s licenses, though.

 “As legislators prepare t