Teacher assistants 32 of 51 school layoffs

Published 2:45 pm Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Teacher assistants made up about two-thirds of the layoffs in Forrest and Lamar county districts that had to drop employees to balance their budgets.

The Hattiesburg, Petal, Forrest County Agricultural High School and Lumberton districts laid off a total of 51 employees, and 32 of them were teacher assistants, the Hattiesburg American reported Sunday.

Teacher assistants help with reading, math and language arts in kindergarten through second grade.

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The average person laid off was a white female, about 39 years old, working as a teacher assistant and paid a salary of $19,190 per year, the newspaper said.

Out of Petal School District’s 22 layoffs, 17 were second-grade teacher assistants.

“It’s not easy to lay people off,” Petal School District Superintendent John Buchanan said. “But we wanted to keep as many certified teachers as we could. We looked at what we could do that would have the least impact on student achievement.”

The district replaced nine of the assistants with AmeriCorps workers who are paid mostly by AmeriCorps with a small stipend from the district.

Buchanan said teachers without assistants must work harder, and individual and small group instruction suffers.

The Petal district lost more than $2 million to state cuts. In addition to the layoffs, the distict cut three days pay for all workers, including administrators and teachers.

“We had to make some tough decisions to benefit the students,” Buchanan said. “Our biggest challenge was protecting the integrity of the classroom.”

Like Petal, Hattiesburg Public School District also laid off second-grade teacher assistants. Of the district’s 17 layoffs, 13 were teacher assistants.

Interim School Superintendent Jimmy Hopkins cited academics as the priority when cuts were being considered.

“The assistance with reading skills, language arts skills and math skills is critical in those primary grades, so if budget constraints cause school districts to reduce assistant teachers, it will be at the highest level, where it will have the least impact,” he said.

“We just want to be sure that all of the focus of all of our spending begins with an end in mind of producing positive academic outcomes. We want to ensure that we’re lean in staffing, but not compromising the need for comfortable class sizes.”

Hopkins said some of the second-grade teacher assistants were hired back as pre-kindergarten assistants, using federal funding.

“It’s very painful to have to interrupt anyone’s livelihood,” he said. “We considered options for months during the spring, anticipating state budget cuts and looking at a reduction of $1.5 million.”

Also like Petal, the district experienced a more than 8 percent reduction in state funding for this school year, according to Business Manager Frank Aderholdt.

Other cuts included reducing administrator salaries by three days and salaries of all other staff, including teachers, by one day.

At Lumberton Public School District, two of the nine layoffs in the district were teacher assistants.

Lumberton Superintendent Robert Walker did not return repeated calls for comment.

District Business Manager Jana Grenn said when balancing the budget, “we tried not to hurt instruction.”

Forrest County Agricultural High School did not lay off any teacher assistants. It laid off its principal, assistant principal, athletic director and its special populations coordinator, a vocational position.

Superintendent Elizabeth Yankay has taken over as interim principal and hired back the athletic director, at the same salary but with the assistant principal’s duties as well. In an e-mailed response, Yankay described this year’s budget as “very lean.”

Forrest County School District and the Lamar County School District did not have layoffs, but both eliminated jobs through attrition and cut staff salaries.

Lamar County School District Superintendent Ben Burnett said he has several concerns following some cutting that reduced his school district’s budget by $2.7 million.

“We didn’t buy any new buses, and that concerns me,” he said. The district also didn’t hire any new teachers, although the number of students is rising.