Principals say visit to their schools will show budget subtractions don’t add up for students

Shelledy Elementary Principal Steve States invites anyone who wants to know what $28.6 million in districtwide budget cuts over three years looks like to spend a day in his school.

They’ll have to come early. The school day starts with teachers arriving between 6:30 and 7 a.m. Some are assigned to turn off the alarm and turn on lights throughout the building.

Half of a custodial position was eliminated this year so no custodians are in the building before 10:30 a.m. to perform those tasks.

Then, the visitor can choose a classroom to observe. He or she won’t find one with fewer than 25 students in the school of 606 children. The most-crammed classrooms seat 28 kids. An ideal class size is 20, according to States.

Classes have more students because the school lost 2.5 teaching positions in two years and gained 56 students at the same time.

States said some parents have told him they have moved to Fruita because real estate is cheaper. Others are unemployed and moving, with their children, back in with their parents.

If students raise their hands for help at the school, they usually have to be the first to do so or they’ll have to wait for assistance. Shelledy had eight instructional assistants last year who could help answer questions or watch the other students while a teacher helped one child figure out a math problem or how to spell a word.

All of those assistants are gone this year. Two people trained for clerical work are filling in as classroom assistants in various rooms.

The school has an intervention block, when students get extra help on the subjects they struggle in, but one-on-one interventions no longer exist.

“We don’t have enough staff anymore,” States said. “A lot of kids need interventions one-on-one, but we’re having to do larger groups. We’re not providing the intensity we’d like to provide.”

States and his administrative intern, Margaret Hofer, are sharing more work related to interventions as well.

Hofer handles discipline issues, teaches some interventions and monitors student progress with interventions while States works on intervention monitoring and implementing the district’s new state-mandated curriculum.

A clerical assistant who was eliminated used to handle paperwork for interventions and other programs.

At lunch time, office workers and administrators watch students eat and mitigate the chance of food fights, while teachers, who used to watch the lunch room, try to prevent fights and boo-boos on recess duty. One person watches over recess, down from the former norm of two, because instructional assistants used to perform recess duty.

A snack for the day may be provided by a student. But if the student assigned to bring snacks that day can’t afford it or forgets it, it’s likely the teacher will pass out food he or she bought out-of-pocket.

Shelledy teachers get $200 for classroom expenses, but States said he regularly spent $800 to $900 on everything from classroom supplies to binders for students who couldn’t afford them when he was a teacher from 1999 to 2004 at Clifton Elementary School.

At the end of the day, which States said comes as late as 6 p.m. for some teachers unless they have a night event such as conferences to attend, he regularly sees teachers tote a stack of work to their cars so they can continue working at home.

Teachers, along with all District 51 staff, have lost five paid work days since 2009–10 and have four fewer school days to teach the same amount of lessons or more in each class.

At Palisade High School, teachers are accomplishing that feat with about 30 kids in each class and 12 to 15 more students overall than they had to teach last year, when the school had 16 fewer students, estimated Principal Matt Diers.

The average class size plumps for some advanced classes, which are in demand but sometimes less available.

The loss of a language arts teaching position this year at Palisade means an Advanced Placement language arts class that had a combined 47 students in two sections last year has 36 students in one section this year.

“We’ve lost building and program budgets in the last three years but not staff until this year,” Diers said. “I think people don’t understand teachers really are being asked to do the same work in fewer days and get paid less.”

The school lost an art teacher and one of three teachers in the student center this year, which is a part of the high school where students can take classes online if they are failing one and need more personalized attention.

A full-time newspaper and yearbook teacher was cut to part-time and a student progress monitor was only saved when the school got a grant to replace her salary and add counseling to her list of duties.

This year is hard “for morale, for teachers,” Diers said. Teachers have helped fill in on for the loss of a half-time campus security position, and Diers has appointed himself the person who fixes lockers, opens the cafeteria for breakfast and grabs a screwdriver when there’s a running toilet before the first custodian comes in at 9:30 a.m.

Hours have changed for the custodians when one of the school’s six custodial positions was eliminated this year.

Diers said he worries about young teachers searching for new careers when they look at their pay stubs and see they’re making less in their third year than they did in their first. Older teachers, too, may have motivation to get out because their retirement benefits are based on the three years they make the most money and those years may be behind them.

Diers said the savior to morale is to “keep putting the positive things in front.”

“They don’t do this to get rich. They do this for kids,” he said.

Kids are feeling the effects of budget cuts, too, he said. Aside from bigger classes and fewer school days, students have less time to study in the library.

Hours were changed from 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. last year to 7:15 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. this year because the Palisade High library lost a secretary.

Extra-curricular budgets have been sliced in half and athletic teams are making up the difference with increased student fees. The district does not force parents on a limited income to pay those fees.

Also, Palisade has absorbed many of the 60 students who lost Valley School East as an alternative education option this year, when it lost its funding.

“Because we don’t have that, you begin to wonder. Our drop-out rate has gone down, our completion rate has gone up. Valley is a big part of that so we don’t know what the numbers will look like without that,” Diers said.

SOME SCHOOLS NOT AS

HARD-HIT THIS YEAR

While busy teachers and new duties for all staff are the new normal, not all schools have lost every instructional assistant or struggled to provide interventions.

One of the luckier schools in that sense is Grand Mesa Middle School. The middle school has only lost one instructional assistant this year, according to Grand Mesa Principal Mark Vana.

Grand Mesa has lost five teaching positions over the last three years, including a drama teacher, a math teacher and a teacher for gifted and talented students this year. The school dropped a special education teaching position two years ago and lost a family and consumer sciences teaching job three years ago.

The school retrieved a half-time special education teacher this year, but Vana worries about the absence of those two electives teachers, who he said kept students engaged in school.

“We were one of the few middle schools with drama or family and consumer sciences,” Vana said. “Those were great teachers that reached out to kids. Those programs are totally gone.”

Grand Mesa also eliminated in-school suspensions, which were established for students who would be home alone if they took out-of-school suspension.

Vana estimated more than 60 percent of his students are on some kind of learning plan, from at-risk to special education to gifted and talented. He said he doesn’t want to sound like he’s whining.

He knows times are tough for every family and every business in this economy. But he also knows more budget cuts where he works could mean fewer employees and programs to help students on those specialized education plans.

“Extra time and support — that’s where the next round of cuts will really hit us,” he said.


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