2013-03-07 / Front Page

School board responds to union’s allegations

Committee isn’t convinced, defends superintendent
BY NICK PEREIRA

The School Committee at its Feb. 28 meeting responded to a letter from the local teachers association calling for the resignation of Superintendent Marcia Lukon. The letter of no confidence was read aloud by the president of the union on Jan. 17, and the school board was waiting for clarifications before it reacted publicly.

One of the more contentious claims by the Jamestown Teachers Association was that Lukon was using “deceiving budget practices.” The union sent the School Committee six specific examples that it considered misleading, and committee members drafted answers to all six claims at a closeddoor session two weeks ago.

The teachers association claimed that a part-time instructional coach who was eliminated from last year’s budget was paid for through a grant the previous year. Therefore, said the union, eliminating the position didn’t save any money in the spending plan.

School Committee Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser responded by saying it was not recorded as a savings in last year’s spending plan because Jamestown has never included grant money in the budget. All grants are accounted for in the annual audited fiscal statement, she said.

However, in the upcoming fiscal year that begins July 1, the state Department of Education is now requiring that grants appear as line items in each district’s budget. In the proposed spending plan, salaries are shown in one section of the budget, while grants are shown in a separate section. The position was not eliminated from the budget, said Kaiser, but simply listed in a separate section.

The instructional coach was eliminated after the district hired Kathy Almanzor as curriculum director, a newly created position. Although the grant-funded position did not appear in the budget as a savings, Kaiser said the grant was combined with Almanzor’s budgeted salary and therefore does represent a savings to the district.

Almanzor’s position is listed in the budget for $74,000, but according to the union, that salary is low and unrealistic. The union wondered why the district even considered interviewing anyone who demanded a greater salary.

The School Committee agreed that $74,000 was low, explaining that the remaining $30,850 earmarked for the position appeared in the grant section of the budget. “It was clearly explained at budget workshops that the two positions were being combined,” said the committee.

It was also alleged by the union that only after negotiations are completed with teachers does the school negotiate salaries with administrators, which results in disproportionately high raises for administrators. The union also said that administrators are given benefits that include tuition reimbursement.

The School Committee responded by saying the $2,500 tuition reimbursements were deemed “an investments that benefits the district.” It also said that teachers and administrators receive relatively similar increases, and that the system actually favors top-step teachers.

According to the committee, administrators have received raises of zero percent, zero percent, 2.75 percent and 2.75 percent over the last four years. Over the same span, teachers have received raises of 3.2 percent, zero percent, 1 percent and 1.9 percent. Also, the committee said that top-step teachers were given a one-time payment of $1,500 in fiscal year 2011 and $1,200 the following year.

“The percentage increases for teachers advancing a step are significantly higher,” the School Committee said.

Also, said Kaiser, Lukon did not participate in the latest round of contract negotiations. She said this was important since the teachers association directly accused Lukon.

Another gripe from the teachers was that while the School Committee was budget planning for fiscal year 2012, they were not asked for input. The School Committee said that prior to that year, teachers were asked to submit detailed budget requests by category, such as instructional materials, equipment and furniture. But with the unified chart of accounts in effect, the committee said, expenditures for materials are organized programmatically. The board also said it based its decision on freeing up time for teachers, who were reportedly “overwhelmed and stressed” by new state-mandated initiatives.

“The administrators were confident in their ability to propose budgets for individual programs,” said the School Committee. “[We] are not aware of any cases where teachers report not having the materials necessary to provide effective classroom instruction.”

The union also stated that legal fees were too low and negotiations are not clearly noted in the budget. The committee responded that the school has never broken down legal expenses item by item, but that legal fees cover everything from contract negotiation to policy creation. Committee member B.J. Whitehouse said he was happy to spend the money to make sure Jamestown taxpayers are protected legally.

The School Committee believes that many of the union’s concerns stem from Jamestown’s switch to a part-time superintendent with a principal at each school. Previously, there had been one principal and a full-time superintendent.

“One person can’t be an effective superintendent and a principal,” said Kaiser.

School Committee members at their Feb. 21 executive session said they thought the brunt of the problem is that they failed to clearly define shifts in roles and responsibilities when the district transitioned to the two-principal model.

The School Committee sent a letter to all Jamestown teachers inviting them to the Lawn Avenue School cafeteria on Thursday, March 7, at 7 p.m. The board hopes the joint discussion will help delineate responsibilities and establish a firm organizational framework within the district.

In other news, Almanzor presented scores from the New England Common Assessment Program to the School Committee. NECAP measures student performance in grades 3 through 8, as well as the 11th grade. Jamestown received overall good marks. (The district has no 11th-graders, since students transfer to North Kingstown or private schools following eighth grade.)

Students are graded one to four on the test. Three and four is considered proficient. Jamestown students generally scored proficient or better across the board, except for writing, which was the district’s worst area. For fifth-graders, nearly 50 percent of students scored a one or two.

Mathematics saw an uptick in Jamestown. The test showed 92 percent of eighth-graders profi- cient or better. This was welcome news for committee member Julia Held, who noted there had been some concern in the community about mathematics. It was the highest score for any noncharter district in the state, and the second overall after the Compass School.

It was noted that strong community support, a dedicated work force, and a low student-to-teacher ratio contributed to Jamestown’s scores.

“Those numbers, by the way, are great,” said Whitehouse. “I’m sitting here going ‘wow.’ Education is valued here.”

The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers will replace NECAP in 2015 following field-testing next year.

In other news, the School Committee voted to approve the eighthgrade field trip to Washington, D.C., and a sixth-grade overnight trip to URI’s Alton Jones Campus. Also, the Elizabeth Stone Scholarship Fund will give out $4,000 in whatever increments the scholarship panel decides.

The committee also heard minor changes to the budget for the upcoming year that cumulatively will result in a slightly smaller budget for next year. Kaiser decided that it was “imperative” to hear the union’s assertion on deceiving budget practices before the committee voted on a spending plan to send to the Town Council for approval.

Lastly, the committee accepted Cynthia Cherney’s letter of intent to retire at the end of the school year. Cherney is co-president of the Jamestown Teachers Association. She read the letter two months ago calling on Lukon to resign.

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