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Parents protest teacher assistant cuts; School board abandons local transfer plan

by Jordan Green

Members of the Guilford County School Board faced angry parents and school employees in red shirts on Sept. 13, who protested the elimination of teacher assistant positions as a result of state budget cuts.

Parents in the southwest Greensboro suburbs also objected to a plan to transfer students from Ragsdale High School west to Southwest High School, and the board beat a hasty retreat at the meeting in an effort to maintain consensus on other aspects of its countywide redistricting plan.

Two distinct contradictions within the district’s mandate have emerged, but in both cases board members have assiduously avoided drawing battle lines. The idealistic demands of No Child Left Behind to elevate academic performance have run up against cold fiscal realities of under-funded education budgets. Meanwhile, the post-integrationist push to narrow the achievement gap between white and non-white students is bumping uncomfortably against increasing calls for local neighborhood schools.

‘“I have heard criticism that our efforts are misguided, that we should be protesting the state to increase funds for our county,’” said Mary Fabrizio, a parent from Colfax, whose hands shook as she addressed the board. ‘“We’ve also been told that we’re naïve to think there are any other places the budget can be cut to fund [teacher assistant] positions. My answer is this. If we say nothing about a bad situation, then we as parents aren’t doing our jobs in letting you know we are unhappy with the job we hired you to do. We need you to reorder your priorities with the budget you have and to fight harder to get more funding.’”

As she spoke, a swarm of parents and teachers in red shirts who filled about two thirds of the meeting room, fluttered their hands to show approval and periodically broke out into noisy, unauthorized applause. Of the 18 speakers who addressed the board, about half came to protest the cuts to teacher assistant positions, while others complained about children being abruptly pulled out of classes and about stalled earnings for classified employees.

Ron Pierce, a parent at Colfax Elementary, provided a vivid example of the cost of reducing teacher assistant positions. He said his son had been roughed up on the playground because no adult was present to stop it.

‘“I’m begging you: please give us back our assistants,’” he said. ‘“There’s a sea of red here who wouldn’t say anything, except thank God for what you do. Find a way to get the money back.’”

Superintendent Terry Grier said the state reduced funding to Guilford County Schools by $4 million for the 2005-2006 school year, and by more than $3 million in each of the two preceding years. He said state funding cuts translated into the school system reducing its number of teacher assistants from about 600 to 457. After school principals decided to replace teacher assistants with technology and testing aides, the number dropped again to 365.

‘“It’s tough,’” Grier said. ‘“I’d like to see it be where 52 percent of the state budget is going to fund education, compared to the 38 percent we’re getting now.’”

With the exception of Darlene Garrett, board members generally declined to address the concerns of the coalition calling for restoration of the teaching assistant positions. But Chairman Alan Duncan contested a claim by more than one speaker that teachers had been warned by administrators against speaking out against the cuts on pain of losing their jobs.

‘“There are many employees who bring their concerns to us,’” Duncan said. ‘“We in no way would ever suggest that we don’t want to hear from our employees.’”

The confrontational mood continued when Grier gave an update on class sizes. When he stated that classroom populations were all below state maximums, audience members erupted in a cry of, ‘“Where? Where?’”

When Duncan tried to silence them, some protested: ‘“But that’s not true.’”

Chief Human Resources Officer Mike Harris distributed a spreadsheet with class size averages, broken down by school and grade level to assure board members that the district was in compliance, but some board members protested that without student-teacher ratios for each classroom the statistics could obscure violations. Harris acknowledged that in two instances class sizes fall short of the district’s standards: at Oak View Elementary, where second-grade classes have 18 and 19 students each, and at Allen Jay Elementary, where the average third-grade class size is 17.3.

Aspects of the reassignment plan caused no less consternation.

‘“We want to stay at Ragsdale,’” said Pamela Herndon, who spoke on behalf of the Adams Farm Community Association. ‘“Our first concern is our children’s safety. Consider that you’ll have two hundred young sixteen and seventeen-year-olds driving down Westover Avenue across Eastchester during the busiest time of day. Southwest is at least twice as far as Ragsdale. It’s a waste in fuel. Ragsdale can wait for state lottery money to expand. If you need to, instead of moving children move your chief administrators and master teachers.’”

Pressed for a rationale for moving the students from Ragsdale High School to Southwest High School, Duncan said it was merely a plan under consideration that was drawn up at the request of one or two board members.

‘“We have to redistrict based on demographics,’” he said. ‘“We’re doing it to make the best use of our facilities for all students.’”

The plan to transfer students from Ragsdale High School to Southwest High School was abruptly shelved when the board voted unanimously to approve a motion by Garrett to withdraw it.

But other reassignment plans remain on the table, including one to transfer students from Southwest High School south to High Point Central High School; one to create a mini attendance zone around Andrews High School in High Point; and plans to create a new high school, a new middle school and new elementary schools in the northern portion of the county.

Three public forums have been scheduled to allow parents to comment on the various proposals. One was scheduled for Sept. 15 at Northeast High School in McLeansville. Others are planned for Tuesday, Sept. 20, at Penn-Griffin Middle School in High Point, and for Sept. 27 at Northwest High School in Greensboro.

But Board member Anita Sharpe, whose district includes Ragsdale High School, added a new wrinkle to the redistricting controversy when she proposed that Guilford County Schools consider a plan to create attendance zones for schools as close as possible to students’ homes, drawing lines along natural boundaries and heavily-traveled thoroughfares. Eric Hoekstra, the district demographer, said it would probably take him until the end of the year to create a set of countywide maps for the board’s consideration.

The proposal was approved by a vote of 6 to 4, with one abstention. Board member Amos Quick, who is black, voted in support, but not before expressing reservations. He said he supported a study, but didn’t know if he would ultimately vote in favor of a neighborhood school plan.

‘“We have to address the historic inadequacies that come with certain neighborhoods,’” he told Sharpe.

She shot back: ‘“Put your money where your mouth is. My question is where we put the schools. Your question is where we put the resources. That’s why we get the demographic data.’”

Board member Dot Kearns, who represents parts of High Point, suggested Sharpe’s study takes the school system back to square one.

‘“When we developed this plan there were clear themes at each school,’” she said. ‘“I feel like we’re mixing everybody up. I don’t know how we’re going to present coherent plans at the forums.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com

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