LUMBERTON — The Public Schools of Robeson County’s 571 teachers assistants waited anxiously by their mailboxes recently to see if they got the letter from the Board of Education that apologized for having to cut their position because of a $10.5 million cut in state funding from the system’s budget.
About 40 percent of them — 235 people — lost their jobs.
According to one teacher assistant who was let go, the board lost more than 235 teacher assistants, it lost the “back-bone” of the school system and its pool of future teachers.
“They’ve lost touch with what’s going on in the classrooms,” said the woman. “It’s almost humanely impossible to control a class with only one teacher.”
The teacher assistant did not want to be identified for fear of jeopardizing any future employment. She has worked with the school system for seven years. Another teacher assistant with four years experience also contacted the paper, but did not want to be identified.
According to DeRay Cole, assistant superintendent of Human Resources, every school in the system lost teaching assistants with the exception of Early College High School and the Career Center, which did not have any assistants.
Cole said that the No Child Left Behind Act sets the minimum requirement for a teacher assistant at 48 hours of college credit.
“The assistant is there for all the students, but really there for those who need that extra push and extra instruction,” said the four-year assistant. “Those are the ones that don’t get support from home, so all they get is at school. Now where are they going to turn?”
A teacher assistant’s primary role is in the classroom, aiding children with learning disabilities, attention deficits and who are hyperactive, according to Mike Smith, a 20-year school board member and current vice chairman for the board. They make sure students are working on the tasks assigned by the primary teacher and handle any students that are disruptive to the rest of the class.
They also perform secretarial duties for their teachers, like checking their mailboxes in the front office, making copies, decorating bulletin boards and cleaning the classrooms. Assistants are sometimes pulled to other classrooms to relieve teachers for a bathroom or lunch break. Smith said that some assistants also serve as bus drivers for the schools. Teacher assistants also man the computer labs in schools and assist in the library.
According to the seven-year assistant, they also care for children who have been sick. Assistants must clean up after the children and sit with them until a parent comes.
With all these tasks to fulfill, she said that the remaining assistants will be stretched too thinly.
“They are not lucky,” the sever-year veteran said. “They’re doomed.
“You are going to see things happen. You think the drop-out rate is bad now? You think absenteeism is bad now? Just wait a month without teachers assistants.”
The four-year assistant said that by removing assistants from the classroom, teachers and students are going to suffer the consequences.
“If you have 25 or 26 kids, the teacher is not going to be able to stop for one or two who are struggling,” she said. “These kids are going to fall behind.”
Most teacher assistants are assigned to the lower grades, said Cole, but are required in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and in all educationally-challenged classes.
Cole said that the remaining teachers assistants will be assigned to fill gaps where others were let go, but not necessarily to the same school or grade-level they were assigned before. The board will begin reassigning the assistants this week.
The decision of who to let go was made by the school board at the suggestion of the superintendent, Cole said, on the basis of several criteria, including evaluations; degrees, licenses and other certifications that show a likelihood of progressing through the system; and years of experience.
The teacher assistant with seven years of experience said that none of the 336 remaining teachers assistants had less than 7.5 years of experience. No board members could corroborate the statement, although Smith said he had heard the same thing, but that there was no mention of a specific years-of-experience cut-off during the negotiations.
“Seniority would only come into play if all other factors were the same,” Cole said.
Smith said that first-year assistants were hired with the understanding that they were entering a system that would experience cuts this year.
“Teachers assistants were not the only positions that were cut,” Smith said. “But it was cut the most. There were several central office positions that were vacant that will remain open.”
The board had to cut a total of $10.5 million from its budget this fiscal year. But Erica Setzer, chief finance officer for the public schools, told the board in June that the schools still have a lump of federal stimulus money — about $4.8 million — which she said the board used to lessen the severity of the cuts.
Teacher assistants make about $1,600 per month, or between $19,000 and $20,000 annually. By eliminating 235 positions, the school system saved about $4.5 million.
“I’ve been on the board for 20 years and this had been one of the toughest decisions that I have had to make, maybe the toughest,” Smith said.
Both of the assistants interviewed in this story had returned to school for a bachelor’s degree in Education to become teachers, doing so at the recommendation of the school board.
But with the loss of their jobs and the scholarships associated with being an employed teaching assistant, the women said making tuition payments will be difficult financially.
The seven-year veteran plans to complete her studies and work as a teacher. “
The four-year assistant has decided to change her degree from Education to Social Services.
“You don’t want to get a degree and not have a job,” she said.
— Staff writer Ali Rockett can be reached at (910) 272-6127 or firstname.lastname@example.org.