Officials: Support staff reduces costs (12/23/09)

Dec. 23, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

In recent School Board budget meetings, parents and community members have asked the same question: Does Williston have too much support staff?

At the Dec. 15 budget forum, parent and South Burlington kindergarten teacher Abby Klein questioned the necessity of teacher assistants in Williston. At a November budget meeting, questions were raised in regards to the high number of paraeducators within the school district. Williston employs 69 full- and part-time paraeducators and 21 teacher assistants. While other school districts of comparative size have fewer support staff, the Williston administration defends its numbers and say one of the reasons Williston’s per pupil costs remain lower than similar districts is because of the support staff.

“We offer a lot of education for the dollar,” District Principal Walter Nardelli said at last week’s budget forum.

The support staff fulfills a variety of responsibilities, ranging from instructing students in one-on-one settings to performing clerical work.

Even so, many school districts are reducing the staffing levels of paraeducators, and some don’t even have teacher assistants, according to Karin Edwards, director of student support with the Vermont Department of Education. Edwards said the reductions are typically made to save money in the school budgets.

Schools in Rutland and in Lamoille County, for instance, have resorted to classroom and special education teachers sharing teaching duties, thereby eliminating the need for some paraeducators.

“There’s a real growing awareness that we have too many paraprofessionals out there,” Edwards said, adding that Vermont has one of the highest rates in the country of paraeducator employment.


By the numbers

In Williston, paraeducators work within the classroom and individually with special education students, according to Bob Mason, Chittenden South Supervisory Union chief operations officer. Each teaching team, which spans four grades, has two or three paraeducators. Other paraeducators work in the district’s math and language labs.

Paraprofessional salaries and benefits cost $1.2 million and make up 7 percent of the school’s annual budget. Only full-time paraeducators receive benefits. The 21 teacher assistant salaries in Williston make up a little less than 2 percent of the budget, or roughly $282,000. Salaries and benefits for Williston’s 53 classroom teachers make up more than $11 million of the $16.23 million budget.

Nardelli said the high number of support staff is actually more cost efficient for education. According to cost per pupil figures provided by the Department of Education, it costs $12,220 each year to educate one student in Williston. That’s lower than all other elementary and middle schools in CSSU.

Compared to school districts of similar size, Williston’s per pupil costs also remain lower. In South Burlington, it costs $13,500 to educate a student; Essex Junction’s costs are $12,615 per student. Both school districts have lower numbers of paraprofessionals than Williston at the pre-kindergarten through eighth grade level: 47 paraeducators work in South Burlington and 36 work in Essex Junction, both full-time and part-time.

Nardelli attributed Williston’s lower cost-per-pupil figures to the district’s larger number of support staff. He explained in a recent interview that Williston’s house system gives the district a different education model than most other schools — one that actually promotes the use of a larger number of support staff.

Edwards, of the state’s Department of Education, confirmed Nardelli’s position.

Calling Williston a “decentralized model,” Nardelli said the district has fewer administrators and teachers than typical schools of its size. Consequently, class sizes are high compared to similar districts — typically 22 to 25 students per teacher depending on the house — while adhering to state standards of 25 students per classroom.

Paraeducators and teacher assistants are vital in helping teachers instruct students and allow for more one-on-one learning and extra help, Nardelli explained. Many paraeducators, in particular, work in special education to aid students on individualized education programs and help students improve their New England Common Assessment Program test scores.

“We have a very cost-efficient model here,” Nardelli said.

Nardelli admitted the added support staff is a tradeoff for having fewer teachers, but “we want our resources at the student level,” he said.

Employing more support staff than teachers is cheaper, as well, Nardelli argued. He said the salaries of two paraeducators and one teacher assistant equals the cost of one teacher with benefits. The district also receives state aid for special education paraprofessionals. For those that spend one-on-one time with students in special education programs, more than 50 percent of their time is reimbursable through state aid.

Paraeducators and teacher assistants in Williston are mainly college-educated and many are certified teachers, Nardelli said. For some with those qualifications, it’s a way to “get a foot in the door” for a teaching position in Williston or CSSU, he added.



Officials in South Burlington and Essex Junction say they’ve made efforts to reduce reliance on paraeducators. Amadee Denton, fiscal coordinator with South Burlington, said her district has reduced seven paraeducator positions in the past several years due to budget concerns.

Essex Junction eliminated four positions in the last four years because of budget constraints, and may cut more, according to Erin Maguire, executive director of student support services with Chittenden Central Supervisory Union.

“I continue to contemplate whether we need to look at that again,” Maguire said.

During last year’s school budget discussions in Williston, when the district needed to make significant cuts, one teacher assistant and two paraeducators positions were cut. The School Board has not discussed the possibility of staffing cuts this year, as the district’s proposed budget increase, at 1.05 percent, is lower than in previous years.

Nardelli has praised the hard work of paraprofessionals and teacher assistants in Williston during many board meetings this year and said their efforts in the schools only helps.

“They are integral in the education of our students,” Nardelli said. “They allow our teachers to do what they do.”