BY STACI WILSON
Montrose Area Superintendent Chris McComb asked the school board at the Wednesday, Aug. 22 meeting, to reconsider creating two learning center aide positions so the schools’ libraries remain open to the students.
The request made during the board work session grew into a contentious discussion between board members and district administrators.
In a 7-2 vote at the June 11 meeting, the school board voted against the proposal, saying they were not comfortable adding the two new positions. Board members voting against the positions in June were: Amy Lyden, Richard Jordan, Jennifer Strickland, Gloria Smith, Madeline Arnold, Doug Wilcox and John Wood. Mary Homan and Paul Adams voted in favor of the positions at that time.
The high school librarian had been transferred out of the position to take on teaching duties in English and Journalism classes; and last year one aide split her time between the two elementary schools in the district. Funding for the support staff positions was included in the district’s 2018-19 final budget.
School director Richard Jordan opened the discussion by asking if there were high school teachers drawing a full salary but teaching only three to five periods a day. “Why not put them there?” he queried.
High School Principal Eric Powers said, “No teachers are under utilized,” and explained there were numerous co-teaching, inclusion, tutoring and other examples of teachers pulling “double duty.”
Choconut Valley Principal Greg Adams said the initial plan was to put aides in the libraries, a move that would save the district $125,000, and keep the school libraries open all day.
School director Gloria Smith asked what had been done to facilitate staffing the libraries following the board’s vote in June.
McComb answered that there was no plan in place to fill those positions. “The teachers are not available. They also say it goes against the collective bargaining agreement,” he said.
“Aside from that there is no opportunity for any teacher (in the elementary schools) to cover the library any time,” McComb continued.
Board members continue to question why teachers could not “cover” the library during their non-instructional periods to keep it open.
The district’s Director of Technology Craig Owens said, “There is an enormous difference between ‘covering’ and doing. There is an enormous back office responsibility in managing a facility like our libraries.”
Last year, the circulation from the high school library was 4,600; at Lathrop Street, it was about 20,000; and about 15,000 at Choconut Valley.
Responsibility for re-shelving books and managing the intake of materials was beyond the scope of what a teacher covering a period in the library would do, Owens said.
Smith said, “My issue is with the aide at the high school,” she said to Owens, pointing out students help with tech projects and computers in the school, proposing students could also be utilized to staff the library.
Wood said he agreed that the elementary schools need the library the most. “The question is the high school,” he said, stating he believed people would be able to cover. “The question was never the elementary schools.”
Powers provided a bit of background, noting the district lost a library aide as enrollment dropped and there were no longer librarians. Among other duties, aides were trained to assist teachers with pulling requested materials from the shelves, he explained.
In past years, Powers said, teachers provided coverage to keep the room open during the librarian’s lunch and prep periods. “We have teachers covering the cafeteria for lunch duty. We don’t put them in the kitchen to cook the meal,” he offered as an analogous situation.
Powers also said he believed the union would file a grievance related to the topic. “We went from (teachers) covering an existing professional’s open time to replacing that person with a non-professional. That will certainly be grieved,” he said.
Smith directed comments to high school history teacher and district athletic director Joe Gilhool, saying he was being paid as a full-time teacher with only three classes per day, and a $10,000 stipend to serve as the AD.
Gilhool disagreed with her assertion of his employment contract.
“I’ve had an attorney look at it,” Smith said. “You’re telling me you have no capability to cover it? You choose not to.”
Bringing the discussion back around to the aide position, Powers said, “I need someone to manage the back end of the library to sign in and sign out books.”
One audience member offered that there is a benefit to creating a culture where a knowledgeable person is in a position consistently on a daily basis.
Teachers in the audience said students use the library daily.
“I want them to find value in a library,” the audience member said.
“At a point in time, you have to trust the administrators,” Jordan said. “I’m satisfied with their answers and trust (teachers) are not under-utilized.”
Raises for Coaches Approved
After three years with no increase in pay for coaching positions, the board approved 2.3 percent raises, amounting to about $3,364 more for this year that last.
The district’s final budget included funding for up to a 3 percent raise in coaching salaries – making the line item $149,481.
The inclusion in the budget of the potential coaching salary increase – as well as the funding to cover the learning center aide positions – were reasons cited by Lyden, Strickland, Smith and Arnold at the June meeting for their votes against approving the budget.
Lyden said, “Just because it’s in the budget doesn’t mean we have to give it.”
Adams said the increases were a way to show appreciation to coaches for a “job well done.”
“It’s a mistake to slash every line item in the budget,” he said.
Gilhool said the board began talking about the coaching salaries in March.
In an effort to establish a more concrete base with the salaries, Gilhool also proposed a salary matrix that would provide consistency between all the sports.
Jordan said he felt that if the board adopted the matrix as presented, it would lock the district in to those amounts in future years. But, he said, the district should go with the 3 percent individual increases – amounting to the 2.3 percent increase overall.
Lunch Price Increases to $2.40
Food Services Director Betsy O’Malley explained to the board the need to raise lunch prices this year in order to comply with the federally mandated Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.
Using the federal pricing formula, the district’s target lunch price this year is $2.92 – the dollar amount the district receives per meal for students participating in the national free and reduced lunch program.
The act, passed in 2010, requires districts to phase in price increases school districts charge for paid meals (not free or reduced), up to a price that is equal to the difference between the free meal reimbursement and the paid meal reimbursement.
For the 2019-20 school year, O’Malley said the price the district would be chasing is expected to be $3; and she advised raising the lunch price this year to $2.50 and avoid another price increase next year.
Smith said she preferred setting the price at the $2.40 mark – a 15 cent increase over last year.
Lyden agreed stating the price could be raised again next year if the district needs to do so.
In the business meeting, the board approved a 15 cent increase, raising the lunch price for students to $2.40.
Board members asked that the free and reduced meal application be placed on the homepage of the district website so the information was more readily available to families. The application is typically found on the cafeteria page on the district website.
SRO Talk Continues
McComb reported that following board discussion and direction, modifications to the contract with the county were made and submitted to the district attorney’s office.
The superintendent also reached out to a private security company that provides school resource officer coverage in the Chenango Forks School District in Broome County, N.Y.
Nelson Torres, Head Security Consultant, with KST Security Consultants, provided information on his background, experience and certifications to the board. “I offer a lot more training,” he said, noting national certifications and trainings he has achieved.
Torres, a retired New York State Trooper, said his company acts as a vendor providing services to a school district. Cost to contract for an SRO through the private security firm would be $50,000, he told the board. He recommended the district place one SRO in each building.