Note: This article has been updated with additional information since its original posting.
The mandates of state education law, not some rash attempt to economize, drove the decision to fire Briarcliff Manor’s 30 teacher aides, Schools Superintendent Neal S. Miller insisted Monday night.
Addressing a nearly full middle school auditorium, Miller said the current staffing strategy—the ousted aides being replaced by lower-paid but teaching-qualified assistants—left him “personally saddened” but convinced he had made a needed move.
In the first public airing of his controversial plan, unhappy parents and aides challenged the administration’s aims and school board members, adopting an arm’s-length distance, agreed to an early vote on the matter.
Miller said the planned dismissals represented a major about-face in his thinking from just over six months ago. Initially opposed to what he called “a wholesale turnover” in personnel, Miller said he was forced to reconsider that posture when “it became clear to me that if we had teacher aides involved in the teaching of students, that would be a violation of the law.”
Schools districts, confronted by a welter of state and federal laws, guidelines and policies, “are enormously over-regulated,” Miller said.
The myriad requirements “are there for a very good reason: protection of the student,” he said.
“I have no problem being regulated,” he said, then added in apparent reference to the firings, “but sometimes these requirements lead to us doing something we don’t want to.”
Unpersuaded, a number of speakers, almost all of them women, almost all of them critical of the quietly engineered restructuring, took turns at the microphone, describing both their heartache over the firings and their hope for yet another reversal of official thinking. The audience applauded, sometimes as a woman spoke and always after she had finished.
Julie Snider, leading off and expressing a sentiment implicit in virtually everyone’s statement, said she was “saddened and angered by this decision.”
“Our kids,” she declared, setting off the first round of applause, “are the most important people in our community.”
Deborah Woll, noting the secrecy with which the strategy was formulated, said, “You made the decision without any feedback or input [from the public]. Now, we’re here to give you feedback.”
Kimberly Heine, a junior at the high school, called the action “unfair and cruel” to the aides. “I want you to look at it through the eyes of a student.”
An aide, Maria Barone, predicted, “This radical approach to doing more with less is going to have a negative impact on our children...Please reconsider.”
Opening the door to that possibility, School board Trustee Sal Maglietta urged a vote on the teacher-aide plan at the next meeting of the school board, February 27.
“I recognize that change is important,” he said, “but...it sounds like some things have not been fully vetted.”
His impromptu motion—“Just to let the community know where the board stands on this thing”—was approved.
The board will look specifically at whether to fire, as announced, all 30 of the district’s $30,000-a-year aides, who help teachers with sundry classroom duties but at least in theory cannot teach. In return, the district would rehire three classroom aides to fill the slots of three health-care aides. It would also hire 27 teacher assistants at $21,000 a year. Even those meeting only the minimum standard would be qualified to teach. But Briarcliff Manor has said it will hire only unemployed teachers to do this work, banking on a tough economy to attract a sufficient number of these overqualified candidates.
Despite the roughly $9,000 difference in pay—exact compensation varies, making all figures approximations—Miller said after factoring in things like the district’s contributions to unemployment insurance, the savings are “much smaller” than one might think.
“When we do the budget, you’ll see how little it is,” the superintendent predicted.
Miller was hired away last year from the upstate Medina school district to fill Briarcliff’s vacant superintendent’s seat. He told the auditorium crowd and a tape-delay cable-television audience that as late as last August 1, a month into his new job, he was adamantly opposed to a major shakeup.
But, urgently needing to find teaching help by the time the board next met, on August 16, Miller said he was forced to “backtrack” from that stance. One proposal, the current assistant-for-aide swap, was drawn by Dr. Debora Serio-Vaughan and Carol Ross, directors, respectively, of pupil personnel services and instructional services. It “knocked my socks off,” Miller said of their report.
That was as enthusiastic as the language got Monday night, contrasting with the rhetoric of Miller’s first public statement on the firings last week.
The proposal had been privately discussed with the school board, Miller said last week, but parents were unaware of the shakeup until after the aides got their notice of pending pink slips Feb. 3, a Friday. By early the following week, however, emails were pinging household-to-household in Briarcliff Manor, many expressing consternation with the closely-held decision.
On Wednesday, five days after breaking the news to the teacher aides, Miller addressed the community.
In a “change-is-difficult” email blast, the superintendent spoke of his “vision to make our instructional program the strongest it could be, looking for continuous improvement through innovative programs. Inherent in this vision is change.”
By yesterday, however, talk of “bold and ground-breaking” action had become simply a necessary concession to “regulatory compliance.”
“The law is dictating this,” Miller said.
The evening’s most sustained applause went to a speaker who followed Miller and who took issue with his frequent use of “the word law,” estimating he invoked it “at least a hundred times.”
“I am a lawyer,” Amy Lynne Itzla said in her off-the-cuff remarks. “Generally, I love references to the law, reliance upon the law and respect for the law. That’s my thing.”
But the Briarcliff Manor mom accused Miller of “repeatedly citing the law that allows him to do what he wants to do” while failing to cite “educational studies and data to corroborate and support the educational benefits of what he wants to do.”
“I conclude that the motives are suspect, at best,” she said.
Itzla led off an unusual second round of speakers, allowed to respond after the superintendent and Serio-Vaughan had made their presentations.
“Why aren’t you offering the job of teacher assistant to the teacher aides?” Robin Ginsberg asked to sustained applause. “Perhaps you are, and that means that they can reapply and become teaching assistants themselves—as long as they begin at $21,000 instead of the grandiose salary of $30,000. The way I see it, this is a question of money.”
Rosalyn Beck agreed, saying that “as a former math teacher,” she too saw it as a money matter.
Miller made clear his remarks were intended, at least in part, to answer potential criticisms of his plan.
“Any decision you make should be based on what’s best for the students,” he said, “but you also have to be able to defend it publicly. That’s hopefully what I’m doing tonight.”