Loss of school aides upsets parents, educators

They say city layoffs will affect classrooms

December 05, 2003|By Tanika White and Liz Bowie | Tanika White and Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Even as Baltimore school officials warned that the system would be a "bare bones" operation after layoffs that will eliminate more than 700 jobs, top administrators said they were hopeful that classrooms wouldn't be affected by the deep cuts.

Tell that to the kindergartners at Roland Park Elementary School.

Today -- as a result of last week's announcement of layoffs intended to fix the system's severely over-spent budget -- the school will lose the three longtime kindergarten aides who helped reduce student-teacher ratios, taught reading, tied shoes, and wiped tears of 5-year-olds.

Parents at Roland Park are so angry, they've sent letters to legislators, confronted the school board and searched for alternative funding in hopes of retaining the aides.

"These are not extra people. They're an essential part of the kindergarten program," said Karen DeCamp, whose son David has "fallen in love" with the aide in his class, Hilda Goodling, a retired teacher with 40 years of classroom experience.

"From the minute they walk in in the morning, she's holding little hands. She's helping them. She's teaching them reading and writing. She's teaching them social and self-help skills," DeCamp said. "I can't believe we're making the children pay the price for the adults' misdeeds."

Across the school system, parents, teachers and administrators are sharing stories about how their students will be affected when many of the laid-off workers come up on their last days -- today for temporary employees, Jan. 1 for full-timers.

As Medfield Heights Elementary School Principal Debbie Thomas began reorganizing teachers in three grades at her school, she described the state of the school system as "budgetary purgatory."

Thomas will lose several staff members, including two temporary employees being laid off today. One is an office manager, and the other is a retired teacher who returned to work to help children who are having problems reading. Three teachers, who are considered "surplus" by the school system, are being sent to other schools.

That means, Thomas said, that instead of having three third-grade classrooms with 18 pupils each, she will have two classrooms with 27 pupils.

"I used to pride myself on small class size," Thomas said. "You get the smaller class sizes and you can almost guarantee success."

At Robert W. Coleman Elementary, teachers will soon have more difficulty tracking down pupils who are consistently absent, because the school's attendance monitor was laid off -- one of seven jobs that were axed in the dismantling of the school system's attendance office.

"This is a very vital office," said Larry Gaines, the Coleman school monitor. "We keep up with the kids, call the parents, go to their homes, bring parents in for conferences. And if there's a problem [that is keeping the child out of school], we try to help the parents with those problems."

Gaines is past president of the system's Parent Community Advisory Board, which acted as liaison to the nine-member school board. In that position, he often fought school system decisions, but said he feels uncomfortable fighting for his $21,000-a-year full-time job.

"It's easy to advocate for other people. When it's for yourself it's harder," Gaines said. "But I will say it's not true [that the layoffs won't affect classrooms]. This is impacting in a big way because you're taking away support people. They'll say, `Well, you're not a classroom teacher,' but classroom teachers need this support."

School system Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland said last week that 329 of the 710 workers being laid off are temporary employees -- mainly support staff. Just how many of those temporary employees work in schools, rather than at the system's headquarters at 200 E. North Ave., is unknown, said former state Sen. Robert R. Neall, who was brought in to analyze the system's finances.

Neall said senior administrators were trying to figure out where the affected workers are assigned. Because the employees were often hired by principals or administrators using money in their budgets that might have been designated for other purposes, Neall said, the central office might not know what specific tasks those workers perform.

In some cases, Neall said, adjustments might be required.

"We are going to review those cases that are brought before us. I wouldn't hold out a lot of hope that anyone is going to be reinstated, but I do think we have to check our work," Neall said.

One of the issues for the school system, he said, is that union contracts with full-time employees require that the school system lay off temporary employees before union positions are eliminated

School officials are also trying to sort out which individuals will be let go. Although they sent pink slips to 296 central office employees, some of them have seniority over employees assigned to schools, Neall said. So employees in schools may lose their jobs and be replaced by workers now at the North Avenue headquarters.

School guidance counselors felt the seniority sting recently. Twenty-three guidance counselors, all in elementary schools, had received pink slips last week, but have been subsequently reassigned to middle and high schools because they were found to have seniority.

"So as a result," said school system spokeswoman Vanessa C. Pyatt, "23 other guidance counselors were laid off."

Guidance counselors, reading teachers, office workers, aides -- without them, parents and principals say, students will feel a change in their schools.

"I haven't told my son yet," said Roland Park's Karen DeCamp after she heard the news. "I don't know how to."

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