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Teachers want staffing increases, board says funding is lacking

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017 10:04 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017 10:08 a.m. CDT
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(David Dolmage/Daily News)
Teachers, administrators and school board members met Monday night to discuss the needs of special education teachers in the Newton School District. Special education teachers are pushing for more paraprofessionals but school board members say funding deficits create a challenge.

The message from special education teachers was clear Monday night — more paraprofessionals are needed at Newton schools. But faced with a sizable special education budget deficit, school administrators say staff increases would be difficult. During a special work session Monday night between the school board, administrators and special education teachers in the Newton School District, teachers had a chance to make their frustrations clear.

For the past two years, administrators within the district have been working toward creating a new special education plan for the district. After creating a listening post, they’ve identified teachers’ top concerns, which they presented to board members on Monday night. Top among those priorities are helping teachers create additional time to complete Individualized Education Plan assessments. An IEP exists for each special education student and is updated annually. It sets specific educational goals for the student and also determines the amount of funding the school receives for that student. The standard allotment the district receives from the state of Iowa is $6,664, and that funding is increased for special education students.

Special education students are divided into three groups, with students in level 1 receiving funding 1.72 times above the $6,664, level 2 at 2.21 and level 3 students 3.74. The levels are determined for each student with an IEP, which is updated every year by school administrators.

Currently, there are more than 350 special education students in the district. This additional funding helps, but superintendent Bob Callaghan said it doesn’t begin to cover all of the costs associated with special education. In past years, the overage has run as high as $1.2 million, and under Callaghan’s watch, costs have been steadily decreasing. Last year, the district had a negative balance of $616,851 in special education.

“Our goal is not to run in the black, our goal is to serve these kids as close to possible to the funding that we receive,” Callaghan said.

Teachers also asked administrators for additional professional development days to give them time to meet as a department, and many said they felt communication is often lacking between special education teachers.

Getting additional help in the classroom, in the form of increased staffing and resources is critical to close the gap between special education students and their peers, teachers said on Monday night. Berg Middle School special education teacher Lucinda Sinclair said the paraprofessionals in the district are working as hard as they can, but they need additional help.

“Our paras are working their tails off, there’s no time in their day,” Sinclair said. “We’re trying the best that we can, but we’re still short, we need help.”

Administrators at Newton say it’s not just that simple as hiring extra help. The district has a yearly shortfall in special education every year because the cost of educating these students exceeds the allotment the district receives from the state. Callaghan estimated it costs the district approximately $25,000 to hire a full-time paraprofessional, and school administrators say they don’t have the budget to increase staffing levels. Aurora Heights Principal Jim Gilbert called the budget issue “the elephant in the room” but said he believes additional paraprofessionals are needed in the district. Gilbert said he feels like the message from administrators is that teachers need to “suck it up buttercup, get your teaching hat on and get going” and find ways to work with the existing resources.

“We’ve got so much money and so much need, the pendulum has swung both ways at times,” Gilbert said. “I’m afraid to ask for a paraprofessional, and I’m an administrator, I’m afraid.”

Board president Travis Padget said while he understood Gilbert’s concerns, the district couldn’t afford to “rob Peter to pay Paul” and needed to look at other approaches to solving the special education issue. Board member Robyn Friedman said she was in favor of increasing staffing levels to match the demands of teachers.

“We’re going to have a deficit with special education no matter what, at what point do we go ahead and go further?” Friedman asked the board.

While the special education budget has run as much as $1.2 million in the red in past years, Callaghan told the board there were limits to how much of a deficit the district’s budget could sustain. Decreasing levels of state aid have meant cuts across the board in the district, and Callaghan said those cuts have included special education.

“We are spending at our maximum revenue right now, the only way the board can resolve this is to reduce debt,” Callaghan said.

Board members understand teachers are passionate about their jobs, Padget said, but he’s concerned they aren’t considering the financial situation the district is facing. Padget said he isn’t comfortable with having the board ask administrators to hire additional staff, he’d prefer that request comes from school administrators. Padget vowed board members would monitor the IEP evaluations closely, and take additional action if they felt like there was a need.

“We want to do what we can for the students but we need to be responsible to taxpayers,” Padget said.

Contact David Dolmage at 641-792-3121 ext. 6532 or ddolmage@newtondailynews.com

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