NEW FAIRFIELD – On June 21, New Fairfield’s last Board of Education meeting of the school year, the room was packed with paraeducators (paras) who work throughout the district’s buildings. The paras had prepared a handout for all attendees which laid out a large pay gap that New Fairfield paras face in relation to other towns in the state, and especially in Fairfield County.
Cynthia Ross Zweig, President of the Paraprofessional Union, stood up to speak about the current wages and explained that contract negotiations are in the offing. She said, “I would like to give you some perspective. The wages paid to New Fairfield are among the lowest…This is shameful.” She went on to say “Paraeducators are an important part of the educational team. We should be compensated as such.”
Ms. Zweig said, “Fortunately, raising wages for paras should not be difficult as the district consistently failed to use all of the approved funds budgeted for paras…98% of all paras live in New Fairfield, are homeowners, and pay taxes. When you talk of serving the townspeople, the paras are the townspeople.”
Dr. Roy later disputed unused funds in the budget, saying “those calculations are made based on every para earning the dollars that he or she should be earning…if they don’t fill their timecard out because they didn’t work, we can’t pay them.” In an email follow-up, BOE Chair Peggy Katkocin noted regarding surplus money, “the short answer is that it cannot be used. If the BOE has funds left over after the end of the year, those funds (taxpayer dollars) must be returned to the town via the Board of Finance. The Board of Finance may vote to return up to 50% of that money back to the BOE, but that must be put into our cap-and-non fund. It is the policy, and it cannot be used elsewhere in our budget.” She also explained that “…when negotiations are anticipated, monies are set aside in the budget to cover the anticipated pay raises. If the contracts are not settled in the first year, those funds are carried over because once the contract is approved, the raises are retroactive for the employees. Those monies are not used for other purposes.”
Many board members commented that that have great respect for paras, including Mr. Dominic Cipillone who spoke up for paras in board member comments and in a follow-up stating “I am in favor of our paraprofessionals receiving an appropriate wage.” Mr. Greg Flanagan concurred and said, “I strongly support our paraprofessionals. My son directly benefits from their work and if the numbers that were distributed are accurate, we need to fix that.”
Frank Pizarro of CSEA/SEIU, a union representative who is working with the paraprofessionals on their contract negotiations, explained in an aside that the paraprofessional contracts are in a state of suspension. He said that though the paraprofessional representatives have been willing and ready to discuss the particulars, the school has postponed and canceled meetings several times. He was quoted as saying “we are at an impasse, there have been no negotiations.”
Paraprofessionals, many who declared that they’ve dedicated a decade or more to their position, stood at the podium to talk about their jobs.
Phyllis Keating, an 18-year para at the Early Learning Center (ELC), stressed that the paras in the district are highly skilled, “we are trained by special education teachers, occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech pathologists, social workers, behaviorilists…and school psychologists. Paras have skills. Good paras have great skills.” She went on to say, “We take our responsibilities very seriously…In essence, we do anything we can and are directed to do to help a child succeed…I would like you to think of a paraprofessional as someone whose skills, training, and presence enable a child to succeed in a classroom with his or her neighbors, friends, and peers in the least restrictive environment.”
One after another, the paras spoke to express sadness at their financial realities. Maryellen Wiebke stood up to point out that not only, after 4 years as a full-time para in New Fairfield, is she making pennies more than paras are now starting at in New Fairfield, but she is currently only making $.23 more than her high school-aged son. She said, “I love my job, we do what we do because we love the kids,” but expressed hope for significant change in wage structure.
In the second public comment session, former Board of Education member Amy Tozzo, resident Bill Tozzo, and Dr. Jason McKinnon, who spoke as a town resident, came to the podium to speak on the paras behalf and to encourage change.
On another note, a repeat request for support from the board for next year was requested by Consolidated School’s 2nd grade teacher, Jessica Krompinger. In looking at increased first grade class size numbers for 2018-19, administrators at the elementary school decided to move one 2nd grade faculty member to teach first grade. 2nd grade teachers have been uneasy about the switch for months. Ms. Krompinger noted that the kindergarten benefits the most from para support. She went on to say “2nd grade rarely has a second set of hands…We will have the largest class sizes in the building and not a promise of additional help or support in sight.” In board member comments, Ms. Samantha Mannion said, “In light of the conversation that we had tonight, I think it is important that we support the 2nd grade teachers.” Ms. Katkocin suggested that they might have a special meeting in July to discuss the issue with Mr. Rob Spino, Consolidated School’s Principal, who was not in attendance at the board meeting.
Special Education Presentation
There was an extensive presentation on the accomplishments of the special education department, with PPS Directer Andrea Einhorn and her staff stating that they are proud of the many improvements they have put in place. She explained that they are particularly focusing on smoothing transition years–from Pre-K to K, 2 to 3, 5 to 6, and 8 to 9 with special visits to the schools, planning with teams, and extended school year (summer program) offerings.
Ms. Lauren Pessin, Elementary Special Education Supervisor, explained that professional development is ongoing for all faculty and staff. In addition, they are continuing to work on Individualized Education Program (IEP) creation skills, report writing, working with staff to increase and foster the independence of students. She noted that more teachers have been trained for the Wilson reading program and that certifications are increasing in Dibels and dyslexia training. Plus, they continue to keep abreast of new assisted technology options, training, and more.
Ms. Einhorn highlighted that the group is very proud of the extracurricular offerings that have been flourishing, including Unified theater at both secondary schools, sports programs in fall, winter, and spring, and buddy programs in all of the schools.
The district’s Gifted and Talented program also falls under PPS and is headed by Ms. Barbara Strashun who said, “it’s been my privilege to work with our gifted youth.” She explained that they revamped the identification of talent process, which cut out the question of teacher bias in favor of a more evidence-based approach. As a result, 20 new students were identified for the program in grades 3 through 6 who may not have otherwise been included.
She went on to highlight that maker spaces, filled with STEAM tools, have been developed at Consolidated and Meeting House Hill School and are being used by both gifted and enrichment students. Ms. Strashun has also developed a group for talented vocal students. Board member Rick Regan wondered if the district is staffed up for the program, to which Ms. Strashun replied, “It’s me. I’m spread very thin, but I work very hard to make sure that we service [grades] 3 through 6.”
Preliminary Testing Results
Dr. Jason McKinnon, Chief Academic Officer, along with Dr. Richard Sanzo, High School Principal, were cautiously excited to report that the early testing results the district has received back from the state and the SAT board are trending up.
Dr. McKinnon explained that, according to the state testing numbers he has in hand, New Fairfield will likely rise in the District Reference Group (DRG) and score results are indicated to be going up. He said he is guessing New Fairfield will be high in the DRG, based on previous year’s scoring, but at this point he doesn’t know how any of the other districts performed. Nevertheless, he stated he is excited about the scores.
Regarding the SAT scores, the increase was so great that Dr. Sanzo was contacted by the SAT Board to ask what the district has done to improve the scores. He said, “overall we are pleased with the results” and the faculty and administration will complete a deep analysis of the scores over the summer.
Dr. McKinnon stressed that the math scores are significantly increased. He points to more pointed teaching and interventions that were put in place as a large reason. Dr. Sanzo also said that these results should speak to the district and town Board of Finance, that the school is “making the right investments.” Dr. McKinnon said that he believes this recent success is a combination of three main points: curriculum development and resources, internal and external training in many areas including English Language Arts and math, and curriculum writing.
Several congratulations were given by board members regarding the scores. Selectman Khris Hall, stood up to the podium in the second round of public comments to congratulate Dr. McKinnon on the testing results.
Votes and Action Items
The board voted to shift funding from a number of projects, including parking lot improvements and the high school auditorium, to help finalize the consumer science renovation project. They also approved the adoption of three new foreign language textbooks and a pre-calculus textbook.
In addition, the board voted to approve a handful of policies that ranged from an added fee for use of the Pendergast field to limiting the use of video or audio recordings and student use of electronic devices.
The board discussed enrolling in the new state Teach Connecticut Partnership, but given the change in superintendent leadership, they decided to wait to discuss this further at their August 2 meeting, which would allow the district to join the second cohort in the program.
After their executive session, the board voted 6-2 (with Ms. Mannion and Mr. Regan dissenting) to not complete a formal evaluation for Dr. Roy, instead suspending the evaluation. Ms. Katkocin said, “Given the situation and the rancor that has hit this school district for the past two years, and having been an employee in the district, I think it was a very difficult time. And talk about New Fairfield being better than this, yeah, we should have been better than this and I think it’s the intention of this board to be better than this.”
Mr. Ed Sbordone reported on the Business Operations/Resource Management subcommittee of the budget, “we will have a surplus of some small amount.” He also mentioned that an oil lock-in price, for next winter’s heat, will be sent the board.
Ms. Katkocin noted that the BOE is planning to regularly report back milestones to the Board of Finance to give them a little insight into where the money they approved is going.
In Park and Rec committee liaison news, Ms. LaTourette reported that they approved field fees for the new field, and voted to increase the Rebel Turf field bathroom cleaning schedule to 7 days per week. She also mentioned that the beach extended hours will be opening up, plus basketball and pickle ball courts have been resurfaced and are opening up near the town playground.
Ms. Kathy Baker noted that the School Start Time subcommittee has had some trouble getting traction due to the storm, but they plan to meet soon. Mr. Regan, suggested that someone from the group take the opportunity to sit with bus staff this summer when they are making the schedules.
In a School Safety Committee report, Ms. Samantha Mannion noted that the data review is complete and the audit was conducted this week. She went on to say that the completed report should be done by the 20th. She also mentioned that she met with Dr. McKinnon to get the ball rolling on the Say Something hotline training.
In her Chairman’s report, Peggy Katkocin said teacher contract negotiations will begin in August. She mentioned that board members will be attending the 8th grade and senior graduations.
In the superintendent’s report Dr. Roy thanked Hannah Rigoglioso and Jared Pryborowski, the student representatives. “I am proud of so many things about this district. We had the 5th grade step up, SEE Fair…music share…” In a goodbye she said, “I’m really proud of what we have accomplished,” and “we are making nice progress…I hope the board and the district stays the course…” Board members all thanked Dr. Roy for her service to the district in their board member comments.
Hannah Rigoglioso said that the seniors wanted to say thank you to Consolidated School where they had a fantastic walkthrough. She also wished all of her fellow high school students, “good luck to everyone on their exams and have a great summer.”
In public comments, a parent of a senior spoke to ask the board to look into the policy that calculates GPA scores in the high school. She said that “there is a strange way that it is calculated. All electives that are listed under the main core studies lower the student’s GPA even if they get an A plus. They need to take higher ranked courses to be considered higher on the GPA scale.” Her concern is that parents and students may not understand the ramifications of taking any elective course, even if the courses are difficult, such as astronomy.
Laura Consiglio spoke during public comment about how nice it is that the district goes out of the way to celebrate student achievement, and noted that the “Senior march through Consolidated was more emotional than some of us anticipated.”
She went on to express support for evaluations of the superintendent and fellow board members. And she pointed out that Ms. Katkocin mentioned at the last BOE meeting that there are other state mandates [beyond the superintendent evaluation] that the district is not compliant with, and asked that the board please review and comply with those mandates.
The next regular Board of Education meeting is scheduled for Thursday, August 2, 7:00pm.
By Sarah Opdahl