By Bill Kirk
---- — Zoe Porter choked back tears as she addressed town officials last week, saying that plans to cut her and nearly 50 other instructional assistants from the school budget would also affect the autistic child she works with every day.
“It took months, but the student I work closest with finally learned my name (and) it was the proudest I have ever felt,” she said. “He now greets me with, ‘Hi Miss P’ and actually seems excited to see me. That is how long it takes for them to form relationships.”
Porter said that if she loses her job, as proposed, and is no longer at Wood Hill Middle School come next year, that student will have to learn to form a new relationship with a new instructional assistant, which could actually be a setback for the boy and many others like him.
“It would be just one more thing that would hold them back from all of the potential we know they have,” she said.
Earlier this year, the School Department was ordered by Town Manager Reginald “Buzz” Stapczynski and the Board of Selectmen to cut its budget request by about $1.2 million. Last Wednesday night, Superintendent Marinel McGrath and the committee unveiled how they planned on making those cuts, and it wasn’t pretty.
Of the $1.2 million in reductions, $900,000 would come by laying off approximately 42 instructional assistants — employees who work at every school doing nearly every task asked of them, McGrath said.
“I don’t know if everyone appreciates the role they play,” McGrath said. “It’s a significant reduction.”
McGrath said IAs, as they are called, help out on the playground monitoring students during recess; they bolster the work of students struggling with math, science, English and just about any other subject; they help kids read, they work one-on-one with autistic students, they watch over the cafeteria during lunch, and they support students who have Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs.
“We can’t predict the impact of these cuts, but they could lead to an increase in special education referrals, an increase in counseling referrals, less supervision on playgrounds and in the cafeteria, and it could negate the high marks we get from the state for the support we offer to students on IEPs,” she said.
“They are a tremendous asset to students and teachers on a daily basis.”
The number of IAs has skyrocketed over the years, and now sits at about 240. With this proposed cut, there would be approximately 200 left. The reason the numbers are approximate, McGrath explained, is that some are part-time while others are full-time.
According to School Committee Chairwoman Annie Gilbert, the remaining full- and part-time IAs will be redistributed throughout the system to fulfill mandated needs, such as one-on-one coverage of autistic students.
The cut will result in a “reorganization, building by building,” Gilbert said.
McGrath stressed that students who need one-on-one assistance will continue to be served, but other, less important functions may not be fulfilled as a result of the layoffs.
The 25-year-old Porter, a resident of Andover, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with two other instructional assistants at the April 16 meeting, pleading with town officials to consider the consequences of the cuts.
“We ask you tonight not to think of us as you make these difficult decisions, but instead to think of the children,” she said, as her colleague, Brenna McGoff, 22, of Hudson, N.H., wiped tears away. “They are the ones whose daily lives will be affected. The three of us will move on. We will find other jobs. But our students will be left behind.”
Selectman Brian Major, who has a son with special needs, seemed uncomfortable with the proposal.
“I see firsthand the importance of the IAs,” he said. “This is a tough reduction. I’m not sure what the answer is. ... We should have additional discussion on the head count cuts.”
In addition to $900,000 in layoffs to instructional assistants, McGrath proposed another six cuts in the personnel budget through, what she called “unapproved, reinstated and double entries” for a savings of nearly $142,000. (See related story, Page 2.)
She also proposed nearly $100,000 in cuts for people taking leaves of absences and retirements. She cut another $40,000 from special education summer school salaries and found nearly $20,000 in savings from making salary track changes.
She also reported about $150,000 in expense reductions from such items as copy center supplies, laptop leases, legal expenses and other savings.