TUPPER LAKE - Teachers told the school board they are worried about the new administrative structure in the district since Superintendent Seth McGowan took over as the principal of the high school last June.
Ted Merrihew, vice president of Tupper Lake United Teachers, read a statement put together by the union's membership.
"As budget time draws near, we are concerned that the district is choosing to take more teacher resources out of the classrooms to handle administrative responsibilities and not teaching," Merrihew said. "Therefore, we have instructional salaries associated with performing administrative duties."
Tupper Lake United Teachers Vice President Ted Merrihew reads a statement expressing concern about the district’s new administrative structure to the school board at a Monday night budget forum.
(Enterprise photo — Jessica Collier)
McGowan took the title of principal of the high school after the retirement last summer of Principal Pam Martin, but many of the duties of the job were spread out among an administrative team that's partly made up of teachers pulled from their classrooms.
Merrihew said teachers have seen impacts of the new administrative structure that include reduction in scheduling coordination and flexibility. That means teachers have less time to meet their students' needs.
"Additionally, there has been an increase in teachers teaching outside of their certification areas, and because of this, students are being robbed of the expert teaching that they deserve," Merrihew said.
Due to the current structure, as well as the lack of program offerings such as music and library, Merrihew said teachers feel "many disconnections and are struggling to feel confident that we are delivering the best education possible for Tupper Lake students."
Merrihew also noted a contract stipulation that lets school staff to meet with both administration and the school board twice a year in what's called a District Educators' Assembly. He called it under-utilized and said the union wants to set up such a meeting with the school board as soon as possible.
"The members of TLUT are anxious for more open lines of communication between our members, the administration and, most importantly, the Board of Education," Merrihew said.
He said teachers would be pleased to discuss their concerns in more detail at a District Educators' Assembly.
Teacher Linda Sexton also read a statement that criticized the way the district implemented the new administrative structure and the way it's working now. She said there were administrative alternatives that would have saved the district more money.
Sexton said a story in Monday's Enterprise implied that the union's contract impasse was the reason the local teachers union voted down a memorandum of agreement that would set new job responsibilities and stipends for teachers now doing principal's duties.
The impasse wasn't the reason the MOA was turned down, Sexton said. She said teachers are concerned because the administrative duties formerly held by the principal are now being done by teachers who were taken out of classrooms, paid as teachers but performing administrative duties.
That means it appears administrative costs have declined dramatically, but they've only shifted onto another part of the budget, Sexton said.
"The 'savings' for not having hired a separate principal are not what he has continually advertised since last spring," Sexton said.
She said there are several people inside the district who are certified to be a principal, and if one of them had instead been offered the job, internal shifting could have led to actual savings and a more clearly defined chain of command.
"Instead, because we were already understaffed due to cuts from two years ago which mainly impacted the teaching staff, and since two members left teaching duties to take on administrative duties, we had to hire several new teachers," Sexton said. "When their salaries and benefits, the stipends offered to members of the leadership team, and the raises negotiated by administrators who took on new duties are added together, it actually 'cost' the district a lot more money than other alternatives would have."
Sexton also took issue with McGowan saying he was responsible for everything that happens in the middle/high school building. She said the superintendent has always been responsible for that.
"In fact, many of us cannot see any new duties, aside from attending some meetings, that Seth actually added," Sexton said.
Since the new structure has gone into effect, Sexton said there's a broken chain of command at the high school, which has made things less efficient.
She also expressed concern that the new positions outlined in the MOA were only posted after McGowan announced to the public who would get the jobs in the spring. She said it was a violation of the union contract, and several union members grieved the issue before the positions were posted.
Additionally, Sexton said McGowan threatened layoffs several times when he thought the union had to give approval to the MOA in order to apply for a variance from the state that would allow for the new administrative structure. She said that was disingenuous because McGowan was aware that layoffs would not be necessary because the district has a healthy fund balance.
She said her statement was not approved by the union, but she said many of her colleagues feel the same way. That was backed up by teacher Mary Jean Finnegan, who said Sexton spoke with many teachers before writing the statement.
"She is not the only one that feels this way about these issues," Finnegan said.
Trish Anrig, a former district employee, also gave some suggestions for what she thought should be spending priorities. She echoed others' sentiments that teachers should be put back into classrooms in their certified areas, reinstate music programs and have computer classes that are useful to students.
She also suggested that GED courses be moved to outside normal business hours and that special-needs buses have attendants as well as monitors, because if there's an emergency, one person wouldn't be able to evacuate all the students.
Anrig, the only person until Monday to publicly criticize district leaders recently, also spoke about the variance the district has to apply for from the state before it can be in compliance with educational rules.
She said again that she believes the district should have applied for the variance before the new administrative structure was implemented.
"The application is not just a formality," Anrig said.
She also said she thinks the public should have had an opportunity to see the full plan and comment on it before it went into effect.
Anrig said the form should be made available to the public on the district's website.
McGowan said after the meeting the form will be made available to the public after it's approved by the state Education Department.
The board approved the final draft of the variance application without any discussion.
School board response
Each of the school board members responded to the concerns expressed at the budget forum, most saying the state has tied their hands by decreasing aid and instilling a property tax cap.
Board Vice President Dan Mansfield said the intention of the new administrative structure was to put teachers back in the classrooms, not take them out. He said the board is trying hard, but it's been difficult in the face of the squeeze put on by the state.
"We're being asked not to increase your budgets, and we've tried our best not to increase the tax levies," Mansfield said. "We, the community of Tupper Lake, are being squeezed. And picking on each other I don't think is going to be the answer."
He asked for understanding from the teachers.
"Nobody on this board is intentionally doing anything but their best to make sure that we are being fair," Mansfield said.
He also took issue with people saying there has been a lack of openness. He said he doesn't see how people could believe that because the whole thing was dealt with in open board meetings.
"If people didn't listen, didn't come, we can't help that," Mansfield said. "I'm sure we missed some stuff. We're just laypeople trying our best."
Board President Mike Dechene said he lost sleep when the board laid people off two years ago.
"That killed us," Dechene said. "That's not anything we want to do."
He said the district's financial adviser gave them a grim outlook for the future.
Dechene said the board wants to take care of teachers, since they're the ones who educate students, but it's hard when there isn't enough money.
"This isn't a fun job," Dechene said. "There aren't people standing in line to be on the Board of Education. I've been here 11 years; I've never had to run against anybody. I don't think it's because I'm doing such a good job. I think it's because it's a thankless job."
Board member Dawn Hughes told teachers that what they should be doing is writing to and calling their state and federal representatives to advocate for getting the district more money.
McGowan gave a presentation on the budget process at the forum.
He said that despite increased participation in the free and reduced lunch program and a slightly decreased adjusted gross income, a slight increase in full property value and record-low enrollment numbers mean the district's combined wealth ratio is up next year, making the district look wealthier than he believes it should.
Despite a 4 percent increase in state aid this year, he said aid to the district will actually decrease by about $370,000 because the federal education jobs bill and another state aid boost that went through last year won't provide any money this year.
For the third year in a row, he said the district's "gap elimination adjustment" is disproportionately high compared to other districts in the area.
He also noted that salaries and benefits are one of the biggest costs, and they're constantly increasing, and the proportion of benefits like health care and retirement, compared to salary, have been increasing.
"It's keeping us from employing people," McGowan said.
He and district Business Manager Garry Lanthier are now analyzing the current budget and reviewing the district's financial plan, as well as processing feedback. He noted some of the teaching priorities people have addressed so far, including home and career, music, library, classroom teachers, and replacing retiring drivers and cleaners.
In March, the BOCES budget will be passed and the state's legislative budget is due. McGowan said final staffing decisions should happen then as well. The district's budget is due to be filed with the state April 1.