School Committee discusses budget concerns, paraprofessionals

Feb. 12, 2020 | Sarah Heinonen

HAMPDEN/WILBRAHAM – “Budgetarily, we’re not looking very good.” That was the news Bill Bontempi delivered to his fellow Hampden Wilbraham Regional School Committee members at a meeting on Feb. 6.

Director of Finance, Operations and Human Resources Howard Barber agreed, saying, “As of right now, our budget is about a $2.2 million increase,” for FY21. He said it is largely due to an increase in state-mandated spending of $1.3 million.

Barber broke down the increases as follows: $650,000 for the recently agreed upon teacher contract, $310,000 for paraprofessionals, $540,000 for out-of-district costs, $545,000 for insurance and $485,000 for transportation.

Barber added that the transportation reimbursement from the state last year was 76 percent. This year the district will be receiving $76,000 less. He noted that Chapter 70 state aid went up by $117,000.

State Sen. Eric Lesser has been invited to attend a school committee meeting, tentatively scheduled for March 2 at 5 p.m., at which time the committee hopes to make a case to him that state-mandated costs are too high.

Director of Student Services Gina Roy spoke to the committee and the wider audience watching the public access broadcast of the meeting about paraprofessionals. Last year, she said, there were 96 paraprofessionals, while this year there are 106.

“We don’t just post [jobs] and  hire paras because we like it. It’s because our students need them,” said Roy. She said two paraprofessionals were hired for the new preschool program and the district’s “education coaches” are technically paraprofessionals.

Roy also said individualized educational programs (IEPs) from outside of the district have to be honored, including directions for a one-on-one paraprofessional.

Superintendent Albert Ganem agreed, saying “An IEP is a legally binding document.”

Roy continued, “We’re doing a lot of saving by hiring a para and keeping [students] in-district.”

Committee member Sherrill Caruana said she has heard complaints of schools using paras to cover for absent teachers. She suggested expanding the substitute list to ensure classes are covered and paraprofessionals stay in their intended classrooms.

Barber told the committee there was “great news,” and that the district was invited to attend a meeting of the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), at which he expects the Wilbraham Middle School roof project to receive the next stage of approval. Barber also said he and Ganem would be making a proposal to the Wilbraham Board of Selectmen regarding the project.

“Everything is in full swing,” Barber said.

A pilot program training for area math educators was conducted at the Thornton W. Burgess school building. The “illustrative math” program from McGraw-Hill is in the second year of beta testing for grades kindergarten through 5.

Another program that the district is working on is Project Lead the Way (PLTW), a hands-on STEM curriculum. Julie Keefe, director of curriculum, instruction and professional learning at the elementary level said PLTW focuses on “project-based learning” and “authentic real-world problems that students solve.” It is currently a three-year program with plans to expand.

Keefe applied for five grants through Mass STEM Hub to cover durable materials, kits and training. The district was awarded all five grants, four of them for $7,500 each for Mile Tree Elementary, Soule Road Elementary, Stony Hill Elementary and Green Meadows School, and one gateway grant of $9,563.

School Committee Chair Patrick Kiernan said PLTW is “not enough.”

“It’s great that we got the money,” Kiernan said, but he insisted that money needs to be put into the budget for these kinds of programs to be a regular part of the curriculum.

Ganem pointed out that the money received through the grant is money the committee doesn’t have to find in the budget.

Ganem received feedback from the committee through the superintendent’s mid-cycle review. Committee member Sean Kennedy told Ganem he was “doing a great job.”

Caruana said Ganem’s goals were more targeted this year but felt his schedule of being in the schools to give feedback twice a month was ambitious and suggested scaling it back to once per quarter. She also asked him to set measurable goals on student absenteeism on top of actions taken when issues arise.

Committee member Maura Ryan said it might be helpful for him to keep track of faculty absenteeism to limit paraprofessionals covering classes. Ganem responded that teachers had fallen prey to the recent outbreak of the flu.

“I don’t want our teachers coming to school sick,” Ganem said. He also detailed actions that are taken when students are absent, including robocalls to parents and letters sent home.

Kiernan took a moment to address larger issues he saw in the review process.

“I think the process by which we evaluate superintendents in this state is flawed,” said Kiernan said. He said administering to please the school committee is not as important as doing what is best for students. He also said Ganem could use some help.

“If you are the CEO of this district, we need a COO to focus on operations,” Kiernan said.

After listening to the comments of the committee, Ganem responded “I do believe my job is to be out there in my schools. Every day, I try to do my very best in this job.”

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