By LORI FAYBIK
---- — EDDYVILLE — Faced with a nearly $138,000 increase in insurance costs the Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont School Board this week approved reducing the hours of all para-educators from about 37 to just 29 hours per week to avoid requirements of the National Health Care Act.
In February, Superintendent Dean Cook recommended cutting 12 special education para-educators and three more working as librarians. However, this week his recommendation instead was a choice of either cutting eight para-educators or to reduce the hours of all para-educators (around 25 to 28 employees), for the 2013-14 school year.
Board member David Friedman opted to reduce hours instead of cutting jobs, noting, “It just gets pretty tight when we have cut paras in the past. Those people play key roles in running the school.”
In fact, several teachers spoke to or wrote letters to the board, providing a detailed account of the jobs that para-educators perform, urging the board not to cut those positions.
“I feel very frustrated that our hands are tied with the health care act," said board member Gay Murphy.
She asked that employees’ hours be cut by working less days instead of less hours per day so that it will be easier for employees to get a second job if needed.
However, board member Mike Mayberry noted that quality employees may not stick around for a 29-hour per week job and that special education students have a need for more consistency that comes with full-time employees.
“I don’t think it’s going to work,” he said.
Meanwhile, a plan to reduce elementary school “specials” such as music, art and physical education classes to only one 45 minute session per week drew a standing-room-only crowd to this week’s board meeting with more than 20 concerned patrons urging board members to reconsider cuts during an open public forum.
Student Emma Haselhuhn told the board that her elementary school teachers inspired her to a love for music, which led to her to a leadership position in high school band.
“I remember being in elementary school and being so mad that I couldn’t go to music more than twice a week. I beg of you to not cut that music position,” she said.
Parent Linda Lunsford told the board that cuts such as these would stretch teachers too thin. She noted that studies show that music enhances the learning process and helps under-achievers.
Parent John Van Zante added that reduced fine arts classes may cause students to lose focus, which could result in more behavior issues when students can’t express themselves in creative ways.
While parent Robert Farnum told the board that the successful E-B-F music program draws families to the district saying, “That program is a magnet for open enrollment. This may seem like a very small cut on paper, but the effect will be magnified greatly through the years.”
Curriculum Director Joellen Breon told the board that teachers are requesting more time to teach core classes and this proposed schedule will provide that time and reduce travel time for special teachers shared between buildings.
Friedman took issue with associating each class with a certain day of the week. For example, one elementary building will have music only on Mondays. He noted if there happens to be snow days or holidays a couple Mondays in a row, students at that school might go without a music class for weeks at a time.
However, Breon responded that teachers and parents want consistency, they want to know which day of the week students will have physical education, for example, so that they know how to dress for that day.
Community member Terry Brady took issue with all of the planned cuts, insisting there is no budget crisis, saying that the board passed a balanced budget last month that did not reflect cuts and included a $2 million ending fund balance. Noting that, in his opinion, the biggest problem is a lack of communication and not enough long-term planning.
“The annual budget should not come as a surprise to the school board, the teachers or the public,” he said.
Parent Dennis Durst asked the board to band with other school boards and superintendents across the state to urge legislators to address proper funding for the educational needs of students statewide.