School officials annoyed by idea to save computer moving costs by using student volunteers

UPDATE: After more than two hours of sometimes contentious debate over school expenditures, the Board of Education voted to cut $60,000 from School Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Feser’s $91.17-million budget request for next school year.

Republicans wanted to cut more, however, and at one point at last Wednesday’s budget workshop meeting, Dr. Feser lost her temper over a suggestion to use volunteer high school students to move computers and technical equipment over the summer.

Republicans John DeRosa and Anthony Piselli suggested cutting $20,000 from the $40,000 Feser requested for temporary IT help and a central registration secretary and to “appeal to juniors and seniors to do community service” and move the computers over the summer.

Much of the equipment in the schools has to be moved over the summer because the schools are being reconfigured. This year elementary schools are arranged as four schools of K-2 and four schools of 3-5, and next year there will be eight schools of pre-K-5.

DeRosa pointed out that high school students often need to earn community service hours for their résumés, and he said the district usually hires college students to do this kind of temporary work, so why not high school students?

Feser did not agree with that.

“High school kids cannot move that Smart Board and hang it on a wall,” Feser said, pointing to a large Smart Board in the room — a Smart Board is a high-tech chalkboard, so to speak.

“Where is the logic?” she demanded, explaining that the money requested for moving computers and technology is based on research and input from staff. “Do you have no trust in us?”

Assistant Superintendent Michael Cummings also objected to letting volunteer students move the district’s expensive technology, saying that “placing computers in the hands of untrained volunteers creates risks to the school infrastructure and the investment in computers.”

He said the administration is going to have a hard enough time making sure all the classrooms are moved during the summer months and all the newly reconfigured schools are ready to go on the first day of school.

Relying on volunteers to play a large part in moving technology and getting it set up in a new place “undermines us with the public,” Cummings said.

“We have to be ready on day one,” he added. “We need to turn on the computers, and we need them to work. We need to be able to take attendance that first day.

“I am very, very worried about that opening day,” Cummings added. “This is a massive undertaking.”

After considerable discussion, the board voted down DeRosa’s recommendation 8-1. Even Piselli changed his mind about supporting the idea. Only DeRosa voted in favor of reducing the IT allocation.

More proposals for savings

The Republicans also recommended cutting four teacher leaders from the 2015-16 budget request to save $280,000, another move that was voted down.

Feser asked for four teacher leaders for the four elementary schools that currently do not have the position.

“This position has proven itself to be invaluable in enabling principals to focus the major portion of their time on instruction and student learning,” Feser said in her budget package. “We wish to sustain this position in the schools that have it and establish the position in the other four elementary schools.”

She said new demands, like Common Core, mean principals are spending more time in classrooms and less time managing the school building. Teacher leaders help the principal with some of the managerial and operational tasks.

DeRosa suggested waiting until next year to talk about adding the positions to further weigh the impact of the four existing teacher leaders.

Piselli added that he saw the teacher leader posts “as at an experimental stage now.”

“How can we justify adding more if we haven’t seen results?” he asked.

Democrat Jennifer Federico disagreed with the Republicans, arguing that the board wants “to raise the bar” for student achievement and this position should do that. She also said it wouldn’t be fair to have four elementary schools with the position and four without.

The effort to cut that position failed with a 4-to-4 tie vote. The Republicans voted for the reduction; four of the Democrats voted against it, and Democrat Heidi Gold-Dworkin abstained from voting.

Media request reduced

Gold-Dworkin did support cutting media aide positions from the budget proposal, allowing the Republicans to win a budget recommendation to save $60,000 in next year’s budget.

Today there are part-time media aides in the K-2 schools. Feser wanted to replace them with full-time aides so that each new pre-K to grade 8 school next year would have a full-time media aide to help integrate technology into the classroom and help with new computer-based testing.

DeRosa and Piselli said the position isn’t warranted because the technology currently being used is not going to change, and because youngsters today use so much technology on a daily basis they don’t need an adult to show them how to use it.

The board voted 5-4 to keep the four aides part-time and not add $60,000 to make them full-time.

Academic support

While they won that battle, the Republicans lost their attempt to cut another $120,000 from the budget plan by eliminating two academic support specialists. Feser’s spending plan calls for adding the specialists for each high school to work in a new support center, providing academic support and intervention to students throughout the day.

Republican Michael DeGrego didn’t like the concept of what he sees as a “forced tutoring” program being established at the high schools.

Piselli argued that students should take responsibility for themselves to seek extra help when they need it, not rely on a teacher to push them to catch up.

“The more [a student] puts in, the more [a student] gets out of it,” Piselli said.

Other board members agreed with the philosophy, but Chairman Susan Glennon (D), for example, pointed out that some students don’t have that drive and it’s still up to the board to help all students be successful.

The board voted along party lines on the suggestion to cut the academic support specialists: Four Republicans voted to cut the funds, while five Democrats voted to keep the new positions, meaning the positions remain in the 2015-16 budget proposal.

One last recommendation

Gold-Dworkin made one final recommendation before the board voted on the entire budget plan, and that was to eliminate a new security coordinator position, at $70,000, a position that police and administrators say is needed to oversee security in a post-Sandy Hook environment.

No one seconded Gold-Dworkin’s proposal, so it didn’t go any further.

The final picture

Dr. Feser’s initial request for 2015-16 represented a 2.19% increase from the current $89.21-million budget. Minus the $60,000 for media aides, the new figure, $91.11 million, represents about a 2.13% increase.

In February the budget plan will go before the Board of Finance, and then to the Board of Aldermen for final approval.