2017-06-22 / Around Town

Six Positions to Remain Open at Local Schools

By Brooke Constance White

Despite the town council’s cuts to the Middletown School Department’s proposed budget and the administration’s decision to keep a handful of open positions unfilled next year, principals and staff conveyed a sense of perseverance and resiliency while also voicing their concerns during Thursday’s school committee meeting.

Although no one will be losing their jobs, the committee voted not to fill a custodial position, two teacher assistants positions, a dean position and a technology specialist position that have been open in order to balance the $42.25 million budget and cut the district’s 2.2 percent or $1.04 million budget increase that the council voted down.

The group also voted to remove the College and Career Readiness position that a teacher had taken on in September 2015 on top of a teaching load. Superintendent Rosemarie Kraeger said the teacher will continue to teach, but will not be doing the additional tasks to help students and families prepare for college and future careers.

Between these six positions, the district will save more than $350,000 in the budget by leaving them open.

Middletown High School Principal Gail Abromitis said that removal of the college and career readiness position will have an impact as there will be fewer supports in place to help high schoolers and their parents navigate things such as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and college applications and essays.

“I feel as though this position has a really huge impact on the students and I know a lot of parents appreciated the support from it. We really have to provide supports to students because a lot of times the parents are lost in the whole next-step process,” she said. “But we care about the kids and we’re going to get everything done.”

With the loss of the position, the duties will fall to the guidance counselors and to Abromitis.

At the Gaudet Middle School, Principal Beth Hayes said leaving the open dean position unfilled will force her and the two assistant principals to restructure how the social, physical and emotional needs of their students are met. The dean is primarily responsible for the students’ physical and emotional safety, ensuring there are behavior intervention supports in place, communicating with parents and being an active presence in the classroom, cafeteria, playground, etc.

“Things happen when you put hundreds of children in a school together: cyber bullying, teasing, pushing. Dealing with these things will now fall back to our assistant principals,” she said. “Three people will be doing the work of four. We’re going to work hard and I do want to assure you that if there is any time I am remotely worried about the student’s safety, I will be on the phone immediately with the superintendent.”

As for the other positions that will remain open, Kraeger said they were put in the budget for a reason but that they will make do and insure that students still receive the highest quality education they can offer. She said that although the open positions will have an impact on their schools, she was encouraged to hear the staff’s willingness to work hard to fill the gaps.

“I think what you hear is the resiliency of our staff in Middletown. This isn’t the best situation, but we will make it work,” she said. “You’ve heard how these reductions will impact our schools, but you’ve also heard the ‘we’ll try our best to make this work’ attitude.”

Committee Vice Chair Theresa Spengler said that while she understood and appreciated the staff’s resiliency and willingness to provide a high-quality education to the students of the district, the juggling and shifting around of duties shouldn’t have to happen.

“I hope our town council knows how this is [affecting] our district, because when people are stretched too thin and are exhausted and overdoing it, the quality has the high potential of being impacted,” she said. “There’s no way we can successfully accomplish what we want to do with the loss of a million [dollars]. This is very discouraging to me because the students are being shortchanged and that’s just not OK.”

Along with leaving several positions unfilled, the committee also voted to use Medicaid and Regional Special Education fund balance to help offset some of the out-of-district placement costs for three students with significant disabilities. When employing fund balance, Business Manager Raquel Pellerin said, the district has to use the funds for a dollar amount that will end within a few years, so that it doesn’t create a structural deficit. Because the three students are all 18 or 19, by law the district is required only to fund their out-of-district placement until they are 21.

“With this transition, we’ll be exhausting all of our fund balance, so we’re suggesting that we keep a small amount in reserve in case there are students who come into the district mid-year,” she said. “We were able to reduce the budget by almost $300,000 using this part of the transition plan. We were trying to meet the needs of the students and make sure that no one lost their job.”

Along with a series of other small line item changes, Assistant Superintendent Linda Savastano said they also decided to shift a percentage of the salaries for three positions to grant funding for a nearly $190,000 reduction in the budget. The three positions will now be split-funded and although there could be a decrease to the grant funding, Savastano said it is doable and is better than losing the positions all together.

“It’s not good practice to shift staff salaries into a grant, but we will be fine and we will make it work,” she said. “It’s all workable and doable and I’m just happy that this is an option.”

In other news:

The committee approved a policy regarding having Naloxone, a medication to treat opioid overdoses, in all school buildings.

A large group of students were recognized for the high scores they received on a non-mandatory exam, compared to other students in the state and nation.

The committee voted to open early retirement now until August.

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