Letter to the Editor: Proposed ACSD budget cuts hurt vulnerable students

The first draft of a level-funded budget for the Addison Central School District’s 2018-2019 academic year has hit the streets and it looks even worse than we expected. To be fair, the Finance Committee was given the impossible task of reconciling past budgetary nuances inherited from the district’s individual schools, unprecedented financial pressures from Governor Scott and his administration, and declining enrollment projected over the next several years. Our elected board members apparently requested a worst-case scenario and have indeed been given a stark picture for the upcoming year.
We were warned that the process would involve some difficult conversations, but to be frank, I hoped for a more equitable starting point for the discussion. Beyond the low-hanging fruit (cuts to expenditures for technology and supplies, delayed maintenance to facilities, and reduced professional development), the bulk of the cuts come from proposed staffing layoffs, including 1 principal, 5 middle school teachers, 6 high school teachers, and 18 paraprofessionals — 14 of which will come from Mary Hogan School.
I am a Middlebury taxpayer, a parent of children at MUMS and Mary Hogan, and I am into my third year of volunteering and coaching with Mary Hogan students. Mary Hogan is the district’s largest elementary school, with an enrollment of roughly 450 children, approximately 43 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced lunch. This figure translates to nearly 200 children in this one building alone — children for whom academic success is threatened by exterior socioeconomic factors (poverty is also a significant issue for students in other district elementary schools, most notably Bridport and Shoreham). These are kids whose families struggle to put food on the table and keep their homes heated during the winter, let alone find the time and resources needed to support their children’s learning.
I can tell you from experience how this translates in the classroom: children falling behind due to lack of support at home, behavioral issues, medical concerns, emotional deregulation, and other classroom disruptions — all of which eclipse our licensed classroom teachers’ ability to attend to the primary task of educating our kids. And then there are the more urgent needs of children dealing with neglect, trauma, and other more serious challenges, all of which also fall upon the shoulders of our primary educators.
Paraprofessionals — including teacher aides and interventional instructors to assist at-risk students who are failing to meet academic targets, but do not meet the state’s criteria to qualify for special education services — are the primary mechanism we have to assist and address the needs of these students. And in a big school like Mary Hogan, where class sizes are typically 20 children and higher, the presence of paraprofessionals is the only way legitimate academic instruction is able to occur, meaning that both at-risk and average-to-high achieving students are benefitting from (in fact relying on) the presence of teacher aides.
So when I see a budget that proposes the elimination of 14 paraprofessionals from a single Title I school, I see an unjust burden being placed upon our most vulnerable students. There is an asymmetry to these proposed cuts — which seems particularly distasteful, considering the existing asymmetries in the cost-per-student at each individual elementary school in this district.
I know that the surrounding communities have enjoyed a tradition of smaller schools, and that the thought of putting these schools and their associated infrastructure costs under the microscope is unpopular, and makes most of us uncomfortable to discuss in a public forum, particularly given our friendships and professional affiliations. I know I am taking a risk by even bringing it up. But I also know that this community at large is comprised of amazing families and individuals for whom fairness and social justice are core values.
In her introduction to the draft budget during the December 11th ACSD Board Meeting, board member Ruth Hardy remarked that school budgets are a reflection of our values. I couldn’t agree more. I just take issue with the values being projected by this first budget proposal, because it implies, in essence, that our community prioritizes preserving a tradition (and in some cases, a privilege) at the expense of our district’s most vulnerable students — even if the economics, demographics, and enrollment data may no longer justify it.
At a minimum, I think we have a moral obligation to investigate all opportunities to reduce long-term costs, including the potential for infrastructure and administrative redundancies within ACSD, in addition to staffing cuts. This community is an amazing, inclusive, supportive community. Let’s work to make sure these values are reflected in our school budget.
Mary Heather Noble

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