Until now, a plan to replace nearly all of 's 30 classroom aides with lower-paid, better-qualified teaching assistants was just something school officials had quietly decided weeks ago. The public had no clue, let alone any voice, during that decision-making.
The $30,000-a-year aides as well as district teachers will be dressed in black to demonstrate their grief at being, as one said, “thrown under the bus.” In September, $21,000-a-year teaching assistants—most, perhaps all, unemployed teachers—will take their places.
Despite their smaller paychecks, teaching assistants must meet tougher state Education Department certification standards. And, unlike the aides, who are essentially classroom helpers, the assistants are permitted to directly teach students, exposing them to new material just as the class’ teacher would.
The fired aides, members of the paraprofessional arm of the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), learned their fate February 3. Of 30 aides, 27 were told to pack it in come June, after which the teaching assistants will replace them. One current healthcare aide will retain her job while two others were fired and more-senior classroom aides will fill their spots as healthcare aides.
The firings appear to have surprised the public as much as the aides. Tonight’s school board work session will mark the controversial plan’s first public presentation. Schools Superintendent Neal S. Miller said school board and administration officials met in January in executive session, closed to public view. The closed-door meeting, held under the guise of discussing “personnel” matters, appears to violate the state open-meetings law, which requires public bodies to discuss policy matters like the aides’ firing in an open forum.
Parents’ reaction seems to divide along a line defined on one side by the personal bonds of parent/aide relationships and on the other by the promise of a staffing upgrade at a savings in taxes.
For its part, the school district has portrayed the move as an effort to “enhance instruction” by placing, in effect, two teachers in each classroom. It accomplishes this, said Miller, the schools superintendent, by setting the bar even higher. Elsewhere, teaching assistants must have at least 18 hours of college credits and pass a written examination. About half of Briarcliff Manor’s aides can meet or exceed those minimum standards, Virginia Fitzgerald, an aide and union representative, said in an interview. But in Briarcliff, she said, teaching assistants must be fully qualified teachers. Reflecting the take-whatever-job-you-can reality of today’s tough economy, out-of-work teachers are filling the assistant slots, hoping some day to land classrooms of their own.
“Education Law allows teaching assistants to provide direct instructional services to students under the general supervision of a licensed or certified teacher,” Miller said last week in an email to district parents.
“In contrast, teacher aides may perform only non-instructional duties in accordance with Civil Service Law and certification is not required for teacher aides,” Miller said in his email, which went out last Wednesday as word of the planned firings made its way into public awareness.
Critics of the two-teachers-in-the-classroom strategy point out that one of the “teachers,” at a salary of $21,000, will be earning far less than the other and will inevitably be focused more on landing a “real” teaching job than on helping any interim Briarcliff Manor students.
Patch found divided opinion among parents. A mother of two students, Kim Izzarelli, applauded the planned change.
“We’re in a time of change,” she said. “My priority is to have the best educational value. If the superintendent and the board deem teaching assistants an improved educational value, that’s what I want.”
But the mother of a student, who asked not to be identified, said of the firings, “This is not how we treat people.”
She called Miller’s email “deeply offensive,” saying, “It’s a celebration of laying off 27 people who have done good things for our children...You’re wiping them out.”
Not surprisingly, one of the fired aides was “devastated” by her dismissal after more than a decade’s service. She described being “bitten, kicked, spit on and hugged” in this “job that I loved.”
The aide, who also requested anonymity, sees “a confusing of ‘credentials’ over excellence. A ‘credential’ does not make one an effective educator.”
The Todd mother said she hoped a strong expression of disapproval tonight would lead the board to reverse the teacher-aide decision.
A court, citing a violation of the open-meetings law, could also invalidate any action if it found that it should have been taken in public.
Schools chief Miller defended the closed-door consideration of the teaching-assistant move. He insisted in an interview that school board and administration officials had indeed been discussing personnel matters, as they announced before voting to go into executive session. The open-meetings law, while forbidding a public body like the school board to discuss policy privately, allows several narrowly drawn reasons for excluding the public. For example, the board can discuss an employee’s medical, financial, credit or employment history behind closed doors. But the talk must be focused, the law emphasizes, on “a particular person.”
Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state Committee on Open Government, which oversees the open-meetings law, dismissed Miller’s explanation for the closed meeting as “garbage.” Freeman said the school board and district administrators considered policy, not the performance of an individual employee.
“There would be no basis for going into executive session,” he said.
Miller, in his email to the community, promised, "We will be working closely with our teachers in this transition to ensure the very best bold and dynamic education for our children."