2006-01-12 / News

Teaching staff reductions considered at Lawn Avenue School

By Donna K. Drago

The School Committee last week discussed possible staff reductions for the coming year to further its efforts to bring the number of classrooms per grade in line with a shrinking student population.

School Committee Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser reminded her fellow committee members that the Jan. 5 worksession was the final one before budget talks started for the 2006-07 school year. “We have to give the superintendent some direction” to prepare for the budget discussions on class size, Kaiser said.

Superintendent Kathy Sipala said that she was recommending three teachers in grade 7 for next year, to serve a grade level that is expected to have 56 students next year.

The three teacher model has caused some concern among parents and members of the community because there are four core subjects taught in middle school and losing a teacher also means losing an expert in a subject.

Sipala’s plan is feasible, she said, because some of the junior high teachers have dual certifications, which means that they are qualified to teach two different subjects.

She said that the decisions to reorganize the seventh grade are based on a set of guiding principals that will ensure quality education.

The principals include organizing the teachers on grade-level teams. If any teacher teaches more than one subject, they do it in the same grade. If any teacher teaches more than one grade, they do it in the same subject, and the use of dual-certified teachers to accomplish these goals.

Kaiser asked for a consensus on the reduction and received a yes from all five members. The school board could not formally vote because a vote was not scheduled on its work-session agenda.

Kaiser asked the panel to consider another staff cut in grade 5 in light of a projected student enrollment of 43 students next year and just 38 students the following year. Grade 5 is already at three classrooms, so a cut would bring staffing to two teachers at that level.

Kaiser suggested another guiding principal be added to the superintendent’s list, that being to make “gradual and purposely flexible cuts.” She called this “the key to maintaining quality programs in a fiscally responsible way.”

The cut should be made if the staff reduction can be maintained over a minimum of two years, Kaiser said.

A further cut in grade 6 could be made the following year, Kaiser pointed out, because the same small student numbers will be moving to that grade next.

Three of the five school board members were not willing to make the additional cut.

Julie Kallfelz, the committee’s vice chairwoman, said she could not support the plan. “It breaks with our commitment to provide a quality education” for the students, she said. “These are two oddly small groups,” she noted, reminding the committee of her former admonishment not to plan for aberrations. “You plan for the norm,” Kallfelz said.

Kaiser reminded the group that with a significant number of children of military families in Jamestown for one-year periods while parents attend the Naval War College, “we can’t say what is the norm.” The current number of military kids is at 57.

Board member Jim Filkins was concerned about losing staff “we’ve invested time and training in.” If they are let go and numbers go up again, “we’ll have to go out and look for them again,” he said.

Of the five School Committee members, only William “Bucky” Brennan supported the grade 5 cut for next year.

He said that his children had much larger class sizes in past years and did fine. He noted that the school maintains a high performing and improving designation, and he said that when teachers leave of their own accord “we have to train new teachers and we’re still high performing.”

“I agree with Cathy (Kaiser),” Brennan said, adding, “We can’t do it any other way.”

Kaiser told her committee members that they have to look at the whole picture at the Lawn school.

“We must be flexible enough to move things around or we’ll have to send our middle school to another town.”

The school department will begin its budget workshops on Feb. 2, with additional meetings scheduled for Feb. 9 and 16.

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