Christa Rohrbach was disappointed when told she was losing her job as a one-on-one adult assistant to elementary students with special needs. But when she was told no one would be filling the position next year, she was livid.
“This decision is a completely embarrassing and disgraceful action,” Rohrbach told the Salem-Keizer School Board Tuesday night. “It is appalling, deplorable and downright lazy to take away vital assistance that students in our district need, for the sole purpose of solving a budget issue.”
Tuesday evening, the board adopted a $1.1 billion budget for the 2018-19 school year.
Outlined in the budget was an increase of $2 million for 75 full-time equivalent adult assistant positions. But those positions don’t fully cover the more than 250 people who had temporary single-year assisting positions this year.
This change ultimately affects hundreds of staff members across Salem-Keizer Public Schools and countless students — including those who receive these services and their peers.
Adult assistants work directly with students with disabilities and behavioral problems to keep them, their peers and the school staff safe and focused on lessons.
District officials said they had to hire an unprecedentedly high number of temporary assistants this year to address the student need. But the district is not able to sustain that level of temporary hires within next year’s budget constraints, officials told the Statesman Journal.
Many educators, parents and advocates spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, pleading with the board to keep the positions. They also shared their frustrations with how the district has handled and communicated the staffing changes.
Rohrbach told the board about her first week of school, meeting one of her students and asking him what he wanted to be when he grew up. His answer — “I want to be a smart boy.”
“Now he’s going to go into yet another grade level he is not prepared for, and there will be nobody sitting in that classroom to give him the one-on-one support he needs to access general ed curriculum,” she said.
“How dare you take that away from him.”
School budget limitations
Not renewing temporary adult assistants is, according to district officials, a “strategy to stay within the budget and provide long-term, sustainable staffing processes so service levels stay consistent within recent years.”
In other words, they don’t have the money to maintain this year’s larger temporary staff, even though they recognize the students’ need is still there.
The 2018-19 budget includes $691 million that primarily makes up the general fund, plus $424 million coming from the first allotment of the recently approved capital-construction bond.
But the budget also has to account for inflationary costs to maintain current services. As a result, the new budget includes millions of dollars worth of both additions and cuts.
For the last few years, Salem-Keizer has increased the number of permanent adult assistants employed by the district, starting at about 330 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions in 2016-17, increasing to 400 in 2017-18 and budgeting for nearly 473 in 2018-19.
But even with more than 400 employed this year, schools still had to request additional help to handle the increasing number of students who needed them.
Adult, one-on-one assistants work directly with one or more students who need additional academic, social and emotional support. They often help explain curriculum, help them manage their emotions and have to physically step in if the students are harming themselves or others.
As Rohrbach explained it: “I help to give them access to general education curriculum … not because the classroom teacher can’t, but because that teacher has an average of 30 other students to attend to, each with individual learning needs of their own.”
As the need for these professionals grew this school year, the district hired more temporary adult assistants than previous years.
But to continue this trajectory would have implications in the millions of dollars outside the approved budget, said district spokeswoman Lillian Govus.
As a result, the temporary hires were told recently they wouldn’t be returning next year.
Govus said all temporary employees’ contracts end at the end of the school year, or on June 30, and district officials provide them notice based on that timeline.
A total of 252 people had limited-term positions that ended, Govus said. This compares to the 140 people who had limited-term positions last year.
Now, since the superintendent, budget committee and school board have approved $2 million to go toward 75 new FTE adult assistants, temporary assistants can apply and are being encouraged to do so.
“We have a heartbreaking budget situation,” said school board member Sheronne Blasi. “However, this is a recognized priority and … we recognize these challenges and the importance of focusing on this.”
The source of this issue, Blasi said, comes from how funding is allocated on the local and state level for social-emotional issues and behaviors.
“Overwhelmingly, it comes down to how do we best serve the students, but also how do we protect the teachers and administrators in the classrooms,” she said.
What students, families may see
When asked how many students this change affects, Govus said that couldn’t be answered.
“Some students may only use an adult assistant for a brief period one time,” she said. Additional factors — including behavioral assessments, the age of the student and safety considerations — are taken into account as well.
Govus and other officials claim this won’t change how the students are served, saying student support may shift from a dedicated adult to multiple adults, but they “will support all students’ needs.”
Some parents aren’t convinced. And parents had not been notified of the pending changes.
Cynthia Stinson testified that her three children, all of whom work with one-on-one adult assistants, won’t get the support they require next year.
“I, too, urge you to look at your math and also to look at your messaging,” Stinson told the board. “There is a group of parents and educators … in this town that (is) greatly concerned about these children.
“They are our hearts and they deserve an education.”
District officials insist this is the best decision for the children.
“It actually creates a more sustainable form of support since they will be permanent,” Govus said. “Students’ needs will be supported, but one adult may provide support to more than one student.”
When asked if the parents have been notified, Govus said there was nothing to notify them about.
“This is not a reduction of permanent positions,” she said. “The contracts for these positions always end at the end of the year.”
In the fall, Govus said, district and school officials will assess the students’ needs and match them to the staffing allocations.
What teachers say they fear
A handful of Salem-Keizer staff also testified at the meeting Tuesday, sharing their experience as adult assistants, what it entails and why it’s important.
Jen Stacy from McKay High School in Salem argues having fewer adult assistants will inevitably cause burn out and increase injuries to the remaining staff, an increase of injuries to students, staff not receiving their legally required breaks and lunches, and students not receiving the education to which they are legally entitled.
“With less staff and more need, the injuries, property damage, property loss, calls to security and cases of students failing classes will all rise,” she said, reading from a letter she and her team at McKay wrote.
As instructional assistants, Stacy and her colleagues are responsible for more than many may realize.
They take the kids to the bathroom, clean them, change their diapers, catheterize them, feed them, administer medication, get bit, scratched and cursed at, all while trying to teach them, she said.
“Instructional assistants are the building blocks to the special needs programs in our district,” Stacy said. “We are important. We are not interchangeable.”
Stacy and her colleagues also fear this will hold students behind because they won’t get the additional academic support and individualized attention they need.
“Students failing because a lack of staff is not an acceptable option,” she said. “Education will no longer be the focus in our classroom — survival will be.”
Moving forward, Superintendent Christy Perry said officials plan to discuss options for the coming year. Since the budget has been adopted, changes won’t be made to add additional instructional assistants other than the 75 FTE already allotted.
For more information, contact the district at https://salkeiz.k12.or.us/ or call 503-399-3001.
Contact Natalie Pate at npate@StatesmanJournal.com, 503-399-6745 or follow her on Twitter @Nataliempate or on Facebook at www.Facebook.com/nataliepatejournalist.