Administrators face trade-offs, including larger class sizes, in $66M plan

Citing an inability to do their jobs properly because of increasing demands, the seven Arlington public elementary-school principals have asked the district to hire assistants.

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The requests came as the School Committee is hearing budget needs for fiscal 2018 in two successive Thursday meetings, Dec. 8 and 15.

Expecting a tight budget, committee members suggested various trade-offs, including increasing class size to 26 students. Supporting the need for the assistant principals was the Arlington Education Association (AEA). The teachers' union traditionally supports teachers' issues, but not administrator's.

A funding summary for the fiscal 2018 budget, still very preliminary, shows a grand total of $66,343,245, an increase of $3,170,163 from the current budget. See the key numbers here >> 

McAneny: Had delayed requests

Bishop School Principal Mark McAneny said the elementary principals had been putting off this request for a numbers of years to make requests for other badly needed staff positions and programs. However, he continued, they could no longer do without additional principal support.

McAneny noted that filling last year's budget requests -- learning specialists, coaching staff, new Foss science kits, full-time aids in several larger kindergartens -- showed good results. He cautioned the School Committee that, in addition to the currently needed resources to help teachers meet district goals, they will hear about what "principals are experiencing on a daily basis."

To put the pressures on the principals in context, McAneny informed the committee that as the "student body increases, so does the complexity of the students we are receiving."

To explain the complexity of student the students, he cited national statistics about the composition of elementary school population: 25.1 percent with anxiety disorders, up to 15 percent with learning disabilities, 9 percent with ADHD and 11.2 percent with depression. Thus, as the number of students in the schools grow, so do students with "high needs" (students with disabilities, ELL or former ELL students, those who are economically disadvantaged, etc.), increasing the demands on teachers and principals.

In their report -- see the full text here -- distributed and read to the School Committee, the elementary principals identified three current problems that impeded their work: principals working beyond their capacity, limited ability to design new curriculum because of scheduling constraints and social workers forced to work outside assigned duties.

To partly remedy these issues, the group made four formal requests: assistant principals, more specialist staffing, an increase in board-certified behavioral specialists, continued financial support for social/emotional programming.

The principals stressed that all of the multiple ways to meet the needs of high-needs students require high-level involvement of the elementary school principals. Hardy School Principal Kristen DeFrancisco commented that "the increasing responsibilities and time demands on principals mean that it is increasingly challenging to do our jobs."

Kardon suggests class size of 26

In response to the requests, committee member Len Kardon said that in recent years, the School Committee had furnished more out-of-classroom staff. Hiring assistant principals would require trade-offs, given the budget constraints. Kardon queried whether the principals would be willing to increase class sizes to 26 students to free up funds for assistant principals.

Dallin Principal Thad Dingman said that "our building population is now creeping up to 500" and that causes more emotional strain on the students. McAneny replied that they were in serious conversations with the superintendent about this problem but "the larger class size is going to be the standard, and I do not flinch at class sizes of 26" when "principals are compromised" in properly evaluating and supervising their staff.

Committee member Bill Hayner made it clear that he "did not support class sizes of 26," noting that the school district asks much of more of students now in terms of test scores and academic programming.

However, Committee member Kirsi Allison-Ampe said she supported Kardon's position about a trade-off. The budget, she continued, "was not looking good" and "we do not have anywhere to pay for it. She asked the elementary principals to advise them about where to make cuts to allow for the assistant principals.

In response, Dingman said: "We are aware of the realities; [however] it is our responsibility to support teachers and students."

Arlington Education Association requests

Liz Higgins, a Bishop School teacher and an AEA representative, spoke about what the elementary teachers would like in the fiscal 18 budget. She concurred that large classes were here to stay. Acknowledging the increase in class size, the elementary teachers overwhelmingly requested increases in staffing as a top priority: additional teaching assistants (TAs) to cover all the kindergarten classes, a TA for every grade level and an increase in support from more board-certified behavioral specialists. Also cited as needs were keyboarding curriculum and outside professional development.

In addition, Higgins said the elementary schools need more technology for each classroom; requiring three classroom at the same grade level to share iPads is proving too difficult for effective teaching. Asked by Kardon about the assistant-principals request, Higgins replied that she and the other teachers "wholehearted supported" the request for assistant principals, because there is not enough time for observations and evaluations of their teaching.

Of special concern to the elementary teachers were the poor quality of the substitute teachers and the frequent practice of using classroom TAs to cover classes without teachers. This concern sparked a discussion about the low compensation offered by Arlington to substitute teachers. While Arlington offers $75 a day, many surrounding towns offer more than $100.

Committee members asked the School Department to gather data on the use of TAs to cover classrooms and the pay given to substitute teachers in the neighboring towns.

Superintendent report: Enrollment, new grant, building progress, Vision 2020

Superintendent Kathy Bodie reported that, as Dec. 2, the enrollment has reached 5,524 students, an increase of 4 to 4.5 percent over the enrollment last year. She offered some good news: The school system has been awarded a planning Support of Schools grant, the largest in the state.

The school-buildings update included new hardware for the Stratton School to prevent vandalism, Saturday construction at Thompson, a floor-plan study for the former Gibbs and completed require reports for the new high school.

Bodie added that the next meeting of the state School Building Authority will be in mid-February, at which time the board will vote on another step in the high school rebuild. She spoke of her attendance at the Dec. 7 Vision 2020 meeting, which is encouraging the community to participate in discussions about the future of schooling in Arlington.

Suspension-data update

In other business, Mike Remy, data specialist for the School Department, presented current numbers about the number of suspensions in the middle school and the high school (none were reported for the elementary schools). This report was a the request of the School Committee, whose members were concerned with the statistics a the national level which revealed racial and other disparities in suspensions.

In total, the Arlington secondary schools suspended 51 students for a total of 80 suspensions. Thirty-four general-education students were suspended as compared to 17 special-education students. Nineteen of the students suspended were female, and 32 male. Non-Hispanic white suspended students made up 59 percent of suspensions. Non-Hispanic black, non-Hispanic Asians and Hispanic black comprised 31 percent of the suspensions.

See the full report here >> 

Overall, the numbers of the suspensions in the student body were so small that no pattern of racial or other disparity could be found significant. Committee member Paul Schlichtman concluded that the numbers were so low that it shows "the district is making every effort not to suspend students."

Monthly budget report

Diane Johnson, chief financial officer, reported that the reserves and current costs show that the Arlington Public Schools have "enough to finish the year." The greatest unknown is the future cost of out-district placement of special-needs students. However, at the moment, she anticipates that, with the reserves, the district will have the funds to cover those costs.

For next year, Johnson is worried that the budget may be in trouble with the additional cost incurred by increasing enrollment and the cost related to the rebuilds.

The committee voted unanimously to transfer funds to the reserve in the amount recommended by Johnson. See the report here >> 

School Committee retreat

The committee unanimously voted to hold a retreat at 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 21, to discuss how to evaluate district goals.

Official school-budget information 

This news summary by YourArlington freelancer Jo Anne Preston was published was published Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016.