GROTON — Jessica Beckford, a tutor at Mystic River Elementary School, said she and the other tutors in the district were “completely blindsided” when they were pulled aside after a recent training and told that their hours would be cut.
“It made me feel unappreciated. I know a lot of my colleagues felt the same,” she said. “This news impacts us in a very meaningful way, and it was delivered like it was an afterthought.”
Superintendent Susan Austin told members of the Board of Education that unanticipated expenses, including healthcare and property damage, as well as the need to wean the district off the federal coronavirus funds, meant that the district needed to make cuts or ask the town for more money.
“We looked at a plan to be able to get through the year, and we did not want to give anybody pink slips or we didn’t want to cut any positions,” said Austin. “So therefore, with the tutor positions, we thought if we had the contractual six-hour work day, that we would be able to make it through to the end of the year.”
Finance Director David Fleig said that the district currently had $10.5 million with which to finish the school year, compared to the $14 million they had at the same time last year.
Given the choice, the Board of Education instead opted to rollback the cuts.
“Last week, when we had our budget meeting and the principals all came, they were saying how useful the tutors were and how thankful they had the tutors and what a big difference the tutors made in the lives of the students,” said board member Beverly Washington. “And now to hear … that you cut tutors’ hours, I’m confused.”
Austin said the district was looking for the “least restrictive” way to save funds, so that the district didn’t have to cut any positions.
But board member Andrea Ackerman disagreed with Austin’s assessment.
“When I was a principal, and this was a long time ago … the administrators voted to take no increase in salary,” she said. “When I think of what our tutors do and what our paras do in the classroom, if you’ve ever been in a special ed classroom, you would know that that is the last place you should go.”
Elizabeth Williams, a tutor at Fitch High School, pointed out that the district was already struggling to find paraeducators and grappling with a teacher shortage, and that giving less work to the tutors would only exacerbate the situation.
“I do understand that the funding has run out for many of these positions, but that was never a surprise and should have been planned for well in advance,” said Williams. “This comes with enormous negative impacts to every school in the district.
Jessica Beckford, a special education tutor at Mystic River Elementary School, said the tutors were critical during times like pick-up and drop-off, when they needed multiple pairs of eyes on the children. She also said that the paraeducators — who are paid less than tutors — would have to pick up the duties that she had previously covered, putting more pressure on them.
“I am an ABA tutor, so my students need that one on one escort,” said Beckford. “I’m not going to be there. I’m not going to be there to receive them off the bus, or I’m not going to be there to send them back home. I’m not going to be there.”
Brown, who works with two autistic students at Mystic River, echoed Beckford, noting that tutors not only help out with bus pick up and drop off, but also fill in on the playground and, in her case, for special education teachers who have to attend meetings about a student’s particular plan.
“Everybody plays a role in making sure the kids are safe, making sure our students are safe, and taking one person out of the equation — it really is a domino effect,” she said.
And for Brown, the loss of hours is also a hit on her personal finances — it means $600 less a month — a significant loss, she said, especially in the aftermath of holiday spending.
Finding the money
But rolling back the reduction in hours means the board will have to find another way to avoid ending the year with the school budget in the red — in this case by requesting additional money from the Town Council.
Board member Ian Thomas referenced a recent article that discussed the role of tutors in helping to increase diversity in AP, College and Honors level courses. He said the town had received large amounts of funding from the opioid settlement fund and nip bottles.
“There’s a whole lot of money that just went through the town council in the last six, eight months and got dispersed into various places. And if you read the fine print could have easily been diverted to the schools. It would have fit under that umbrella,” said Thomas.
Board Chair Jay Weitlauf said that federal impact aid and state aid that was meant to cover education costs is sent directly to the towns, and noted that between 2018 and 2023, Groton received $10 million more in federal and state aid than the district had anticipated.
“I’m not saying that for some reason that that is morally owed to us. But I just think everyone needs to understand the sources of these income streams and how they’re being allocated,” said Weitlauf.
Ultimately, the board voted unanimously to reinstate the tutors for their full hours and to propose a meeting with the Town Council.
Weitlauf told CT Examiner that it wasn’t yet clear how much they would have to request.