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Christina School District grapples with budget cuts as new school year approaches

Delaware Public Media

With a little more than three weeks left before the start of the new school year for their 15,300 or so students, officials in the Christina School District are still crunching numbers on final budget cuts and about half of the teachers laid off following a pair of failed referendums are still looking for work.

Voters in the district turned down two proposals for hikes in school taxes – first in February and then in May – leading to a total of $9.5 million in budget cuts and the layoff of 78 teachers, 14 paraprofessionals and seven secretaries. Before the first vote was held, Christina’s school board also decided not to renew the contracts of six administrators.

The board is expected to make decisions on about $5 million in budget cuts when it meets Tuesday (August 11). Key items up for consideration are how many extra pay for extra responsibility (EPER) positions to fill – like coaches of sports teams, band directors, moderators of extracurricular activities and department heads – and whether to continue contracting with Delaware State Police for school resource officers.

Meanwhile, teachers and others who were laid off in the spring are continuing to look for work, some with more success than others.

As of Wednesday, Christina had rehired 20 teachers and nine paraprofessionals who had received layoff notices, according to Wendy Lapham, the district’s public information officer. Teachers resigning, moving or retiring, as well as changes in enrollment projections, create openings that were not available in May, she said.

Some of the remaining 58 teachers have been hired by other districts. Over the summer, Red Clay has hired about 10 former Christina teachers, Brandywine has hired six and Colonial four. In addition, Brandywine has hired two former Christina administrators and Colonial has hired a former Christina secretary. However, officials in those districts cautioned that all of their new hires might not have been victims of the Christina layoffs.

“Early in the summer, I heard they were getting interviews in other districts,” Mike Kempski, president of the Christina Education Association, the district’s teachers’ union, said last week. “I haven’t heard much in the last couple of weeks.”

As a first-year teacher, University of Delaware graduate Samantha Dahms wasn’t surprised that she lost her job as library media specialist and technology teacher at Wilson Elementary School. With family and friends living in the Allentown, Pa., area, she decided to apply to schools in that area as well as in northern Delaware and southeastern Pennsylvania.

“I have a lot of applications out, but no interviews yet. So far I haven’t been lucky,” she said last week.

Her luck changed on July 31, when Christina’s human resources office called and offered her a position as a preschool teacher in the district’s Early Education Center. She didn’t hesitate to accept.

Jennifer O’Brien, who had taught third grade for the last three years at Bancroft Elementary School in Wilmington, was also laid off.

“I was somebody who would not have been looking [if not for failed referendums]. I started looking fast and furious,” O’Brien said. Soon after sending out her resume, she had an interview with Red Clay and was in the process of scheduling one with Appoquinimink.

Then, in early July, Christina offered her the chance to return to Bancroft, but she decided instead to accept Red Clay’s offer of a third-grade position at Warner Elementary, also in Wilmington.

Last fall, Gov. Jack Markell and the state Department of Education labeled both Bancroft and Warner as “priority schools,” buildings with high percentages of low-income minority children who performed poorly on the state’s standardized tests.

High teacher turnover is often a factor in high-poverty schools, and O’Brien worries that cuts like those Christina is going through will have a disproportionate impact at schools like Bancroft.

As the school year ended, O’Brien sensed that she would not be coming back, and so did some of her students. “As I was packing [items from my desk], one of my students said, ‘you’re not coming back next year. You’re packing up your stuff.’  I didn’t say anything to him … but these kids are used to it.”

The student populations at Bancroft and Warner are similar, so O’Brien is confident she’ll settle in quickly to her new assignment. But she is concerned that Christina will have less than a month to fill her position. “Most teachers don’t look to go into the inner city,” she said.

Under the union contract, Lapham explained, teachers are recalled in order of seniority for positions for which they are certified. For example, if a position opens in the elementary grades, the most senior of the laid-off elementary teachers would be offered that position.

Almost all of Christina’s vacancies have been filled this summer by recalling teachers who were laid off, Lapham said. This is not possible in every situation, however. For example, if a high school French or calculus teacher leaves the district and none of the laid-off teachers has the credentials to fill such a position, the district would have to advertise and recruit to find a new teacher.

In May and June, Lapham said, a district Expense Reduction Committee, composed of administrators, union officials and members of the district’s Citizens Budget Oversight Committee, developed a series of cost-cutting recommendations that were presented to the school board at its July meeting. “We tried to take the most responsible approach to impact students the least,” she said.

So far the board has approved $3.75 million in spending cuts, with more than $2.9 million of that total the result of staff reductions and pay adjustments. On the table for Tuesday’s meeting will be another $4,784,000 in cuts, including $1 million in budgets for individual schools and academic departments, $500,000 in textbook purchases, $800,000 in building maintenance and $550,000 in transportation through changes in bus routing strategies.

While the district has tried to minimize the impact of budget cuts on students, three items on the list of proposed cuts could have a significant impact – $626,000 by reducing the number of counselors in elementary schools; trimming $200,000 by reducing the number of Delaware State Police officers assigned as school resource officers in middle and high schools; and $600,000 in reductions in EPER positions.

The board has great latitude in making the EPER cuts, as these assignments cover athletics coaches, heads of academic departments in middle and high schools, and moderators of extracurricular activities like drama clubs and honor societies.

The extra pay that teachers receive for these assignments is specified in their union contracts, and cannot be changed unilaterally by the school board, Kempski and Lapham said. But the board makes the ultimate decision on how many of those positions are filled. Eliminating the extra pay for the sole moderator of the French Club, for example, could spell the end of that activity. Reducing the number of assistant football coaches could lead to the elimination of non-varsity teams.

“For those of us who remain, larger class sizes will be a big issue,” Kempski said. And, he added, “there have been quite a few changes within the administration, and more movement than usual of teachers from one school to another.”

“It was devastating to not have the referendum pass, but our community and our staff have come together this summer to address this situation head on,” Lapham says. “The students will be coming through the door and nothing is going to stop us from educating them to the best of our abilities.”

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.
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