Rochester Schools to Cut Paraeducators

Faced with shrinking revenues and the unclear financial future, Rochester Community Schools is planning to use $11 million from its $28 million fund balance in order to keep classroom programs intact for the coming school year.

But the district will reduce an as-yet unspecified number of paraeducators to half time and reorganize the rest as part of its 2011-12 budget. The move is gut-wrenching for the employees, the board of education and the parents of children who rely on paraeducators for the extra help they need in school.

Paraeducators turned out in force for Monday’s board meeting, many of them wearing shirts that read “In it for the outcome …  in spite of the income.” Patricia Katulic, president of AFSCME Local 200, which represents the district’s nearly 300 paraeducators, said she expects about 43 to be cut to half time and lose their health insurance.


Photo special to The Oakland Press/ANNETTE KINGSBURY
Patricia Katulic (at right at microphone), president of AFSCME Local 200, addresses the Rochester Board of Education Monday surrounded by some of the district’s paraeducators. An undisclosed number face being cut from full time to half time and are expected to look for other jobs. “There is not a quick training to take place in order to replace the years and years of experience,” Katulic said.�

The average full-time paraeducator earns $15,000 a year, she said, adding that district-paid health insurance helps compensate for the low wage. The changes are expected to save the district $728,000.

“A lot of us are working for the benefits,” Katulic said. “We can’t live off of half of $15,000 and we’re certainly not going to do it without health-care benefits. … So a lot of us will be leaving Rochester Schools.”

In the last few years, the district privatized food service and sought bids for outside custodians and bus drivers before winning significant concessions from those employee groups. It was all done in order to keep the paraeducators, Trustee Beth Talbert said. Now, she said, further cuts have to be made.

“It’s not a proud moment for public education,” Talbert said.  “This conversation about paraeducators has been going on since I’ve been on the board.”

Other cuts include the elimination of media assistants, reduced financial support for athletics and a 5-percent budget cut for every department and building.

“In my opinion it is not in best interest of our district to allow us to go bankrupt,” Talbert said. “I cannot do that; I cannot. To spend half of our fund balance in one year, it’s almost inconceivable.”

Outgoing superintendent Dave Pruneau, who was attending his final board meeting, said the paraeducator changes will be felt, at least in the short term.

“There will be an impact and I’ve been on record as saying that,” he said. “We are building budgets that will not impact instructional time for our students. … You will have a number of paraeducators that will be reassigned.”

Lisa Kowalski, the parent of a special-education student, said her son “made exceptional progress” despite two teachers going on maternity leave and one who resigned. The paraeducators “were an exceptional part of that situation,” she said. “They’re the glue.”

Along with approving the $161 million general-fund budget, the board approved a one-year contract extension for supervisors, managers and coordinators that includes a pay freeze. After a 5-percent pay cut last year, the group will receive step increases this year.

Assistant Superintendent for Business Affairs William Mull said the budget calls for ending the 2011-12 school year with an 11.6% fund balance, which he called “adequate” for cash-flow purposes. But there are still a lot of unknowns. Among them is the cost of  new, state-mandated merit pay for teachers and administrators, which is not funded by the state. For now, nothing has been budgeted.

The new state budget call for some one-time, special state aid, which the district hopes will add up to $1.5 million. In addition, the state plans to offset the district’s increase in retirement costs by $1.6 million for 2011-12.

Pruneau said that though those funds are budgeted, the district is still waiting for details. He recommended the board approve the budget, but said he saw some dangers, especially the use of the fund balance.

“We are taking a big chunk in one year,” he said. “The alternatives of more cuts are just not appropriate at this time. I think we can survive one more year, spend down the fund balance and see what happens.”

By Annette Kingsbury

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