Tutor positions eliminated in Kalispell Public Schools

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A reduction in force hearing for tutors and classified personnel held Tuesday, May 4, in the Kalispell Middle School library was well attended by impacted employees and supporters, who included teachers and residents, in addition to elementary, middle school and high school administrators. (Hilary Matheson/Daily Inter Lake)

Paraprofessional positions offered instead as district seeks more than $1.7 million in budget cuts

By HILARY MATHESON

Daily Inter Lake

At the conclusion of a two and a half hour hearing on Tuesday, the Kalispell Tutor Federation was dissolved, impacting 13 employees in Kalispell Public Schools.

The 13 tutors will be offered paraprofessional positions instead, according the district. In addition to the 13, two tutors will retire.

Although staff members had the option to continue their employment with the district and maintain the same hours, it comes with a pay cut since paraprofessionals are paid less than tutors. Tutors were also given the option to take $3,000 in severance pay, or retire.

The original proposal was for the pay cut for the tutors converting to paraprofessionals to go into effect for the next school year, however, after much discussion school board trustee Amy Waller amended a motion to delay the pay reduction by a year. The employees’ hourly rate will be frozen for the 2019-20 school year.

The amendment to the motion resulted in a 5-2 vote, with board chairman Lance Isaak and Mark Kornick voting against; however, the motion as amended passed unanimously to audience applause.

The difference in pay — $117,538 in the elementary district and $47,128 in the high school district — will now go into effect in 2020-2021.

The district will tap into its interlocal fund as a result of the decision. The interlocal fund is primarily made up of year-end money and is like a savings account. Typically, funds have been used for one-time expenses, as it is not guaranteed the fund will be replenished.

Topping concerns that tutors and supporters voiced prior to the vote, was the timing of the district’s proposal in allowing them time to prepare financially.

“Overall, to your budget that’s a pittance, but to someone like me that’s my house payment,” math tutor LuAnn Landwehr said about the difference in pay. “So please think about that board members — how much is it making a difference in your budget compared to our individual budgets.”

District teacher Charlene Gartner questioned the value of what the district would gain monetarily in comparison to the potential loss of hardworking employees who have improved student test scores, worked tirelessly with students and assisted teachers on a daily basis.

With the last day of school on Friday, one audience member described the timing of the proposal as bombshell, while another called it disrespectful.

District Human Resources Director Tracy Scott said the district formally notified Kalispell Tutor Federation President Alex Schaeffer on May 22 and employees on May 24. Employees were given deadlines as early as Friday, as to whether or not they would take a severance package and June 14 if they wanted to continue employment with an Aug. 1 date to give notice of retirement.

“We have both tutors and classified staff that we are moving into para roles and a lot of people are anxious to see where they’re going to be placed and how that’s going to work,” Scott said as the reasoning behind the timeline.

The timing also comes on the heels of the board’s approval of the Kalispell Education Association’s contract on May 28. The contract includes a 3 percent increase to base salaries in 2019-20 and then a 2 percent increase in 2020-21 and 2021-22. Since first-year teachers in the district begin with salaries above the base, the increase translates to a starting salary of $35,463 for the 2019-20 school year according to Scott.

Teachers with applicable experience and education additionally receive automatic salary increases.

About 470 certified staff, mainly teachers, represented by the union will be impacted by the increases.

The classified union, which includes paraprofessionals, is wrapping up contract negotiations.

Tutors also spoke about their passion for the job and seeing student lives changed academically and behaviorally.

“In my 37 years of education I’ve come to realize most of the students who hated school were the ones who had trouble reading. Reading is the basis of all education,” said Glacier High School reading tutor, and former English teacher Kathy Nielsen, who also spoke about a success story of a former struggling student now working as a certified nursing assistant.

She also spoke of the cost to society if the students do not receive necessary interventions such as the services tutors provide.

“A student who can’t read well never feels like a success in school and feels like a failure. They act out and too many of them drop out. They may end up with minimum wage jobs, if they work at all, and live at home because they can’t afford house or rent,” she said, noting that this scenario is a direct reflection on schools versus being the student’s fault.

Tutors have been in the district for decades, according to Kalispell Tutor Federation President Alex Schaeffer, who said the union formed in the late ’90s.

Over the years, the role of tutor and paraprofessional have become similar, according to elementary and high school principals in attendance.

In past years, tutors had more autonomy in working with students and modifying lesson plans, Scott said.

Both tutors and paraprofessionals work with students one-on-one and in small groups providing academic support and intervention while assisting classroom teachers. One of the primary differences is that tutors’ work is limited to working with students on academics. Paraprofessionals, on the other hand, may have flexibility in their duties, and for example, may supervise playgrounds and lunchrooms. Paraprofessionals also do not have a prep period.

As far as education, the minimum requirement for a student support employee such as a paraprofessional and tutor is an associate degree, or the alternative is passing a competency test. Most of the district’s tutors have bachelor degrees or higher and many have teaching certificates.

The need in schools now is the flexibility a paraprofessional position provides, according to Rankin Elementary Principal Merisa Murray, a sentiment other administrators echoed. Flathead Principal Michele Paine, whose first year working in the district was as a reading specialist, touched on how paraprofessionals work in her building and agreed the tutor position has become similar to that of the paraprofessional.

“It’s going to change the way we provide intervention and support for kids. I mean it is. And we understand that. And it’s a very hard decision to make, but we have people who are reading specialists, who are [instructional] coaches in our buildings that we feel can support kids,” Paine said.

Tutors weren’t the only positions affected. Two library assistant positions, one in Glacier and one in Flathead, were also eliminated. These positions are part of the classified union. The current employees will also be offered paraprofessional positions at the same rate of pay and number of hours, making it a lateral move, Scott said.

Additionally, two hall monitor positions were eliminated and will be offered other positions, according to Scott. In this instance, if the individuals qualify for a paraprofessional position, it would result in an hourly rate increase.

Student Margo Spaulding teared up as she spoke about the impact Flathead hall monitor James Dragon and library assistant Sarah Metcalfe have made in her life as she talked about struggling in school.

“These two people are the reason I actually come to school, otherwise I went through a phase where I skipped like crazy until Dragon came on and he told me, you know, ‘Kid you’re smart enough to be here. You’re smart enough to make it through, and if you just stick it out, and you get good grades, and you at least pass you can at least get out of here a little bit faster. You’re smart enough to. You’re talented enough to.

“And Miss Burton, when I’m having a bad day and she sees me in the hall, she stops me and goes, you know, ‘Margo, is everything OK?’ Do you know how many teachers I have passed through the whole day before it was her who finally stuck out and asked me if I was OK? These two people are probably a godsend to my situation.”

The staffing changes and pay reductions are a part of district-wide budget cuts the district is looking at totaling $318,000 from the elementary budget and $1,379,000 from the high school budget in the areas of technology, curriculum, high school activities, maintenance equipment, field trip allocations, building budgets, and by not filling some vacant positions through attrition. The district is preparing the 2019-20 budget that is slated to be voted on by the school board in August. Flatau said that even with the cuts the district faces a deficit of $76,000 in the elementary budget and $326,000 in the high school budget.

The staffing decision also follows a failed $1.2 million high school district general fund levy in May.

On Wednesday, Schaeffer sent the following statement to the Daily Inter Lake:

“The superintendent’s recommendation to isolate a single group of employees for substantial pay cuts surprised educators across the district – especially those of us who have been told our current jobs are ending. The news is even more shocking as it comes after tutors have just seen two school years pass without a raise. I am proud of this group’s ability to tough out the lean years. When money was tight, tutors consistently chose to keep colleagues in schools and accept salary freezes. Last night’s hearing was difficult for all of us impacted by this surprising decision,” he wrote.

Additionally, he hoped the district would sit down with employees and discuss the changes further.

“We deserve the opportunity to meet with the district and discuss better alternatives for our students, the district, and for us.”

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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