Families of students who have paraprofessionals as aides have been notified that the district could be moving from a one-to-one model to a shared model, Montclair school officials said. During budget discussions, school officials announced a $2.2 million deficit for the 2019-2020 school year. The district may cut 10 part-time paraprofessional jobs, with an anticipated savings of $300,000. In addition, the schools may replace four part-time kindergarten paraprofessionals with two full-time.

The cuts are among several being considered to help fill a $2.2 million budget deficit.

In many districts, a paraprofessional may also be known as a teacher’s aide or an instructional aide. In the classroom, a paraprofessional may help with classroom management, oversee reading groups or small group assignments, or maintaining classroom records.

For a student with special needs, a paraprofessional may be assigned to work with them one-on-one in the classroom. Some of these duties may include assisting the child from getting to one area of the school to another, assisting them with physical needs, or working with other school staff, such as speech therapists or social workers.

Parents have voiced their criticism on social media, both of possibly eliminating paraprofessional jobs, and of moving students from a one-to-one model.

Moving to a shared-model, said Superintendent Kendra Johnson said at a Feb. 19 meeting, was partly to enable students to become more independent. A child who has had a one-to-one paraprofessional with them in elementary school, she said as an example, may not need, or want, a paraprofessional with them in middle school and high school.

The goal is to have students become accustomed to going through the school day without a paraprofessional with them, as preparation for life after high school graduation.

One parent speaks out

“It seems to be a repetitive story,” said Allison Silverstein, the parent of a Nishuane student who requires the services of a paraprofessional.

She noted the last three budget cycles when paraprofessionals were cut. The district lets paraprofessionals go, only to have to rehire them at the start of the school year, she said.

Cutting paraprofessionals is a detriment to students who need them, as well as the other students, and the teachers, she said.

Silverstein said that if Montclair invested more in providing in-house support services, it would reduce the number of out-of-district placements, and therefore save the district money.

Special education services provided by the district account for $10,369,283, or 7.98 percent of the district’s proposed budget. Tuition payments for schools outside of the Montclair school district account for $6,176,069, or 4.75 percent of the total budget. For the 2019-2020 school year, the district has budgeted $147,000 in special education tuition with local educational authorities and $5,697,091 for tuition for in-state private schools for children with disabilities.

On March 1, the Special Education Parents Advocacy Council (SEPAC) sent out a letter to its membership about the proposed cuts. In the letter, SEPAC called for the BOE to ensure that teachers and staff would receive additional training to work with children who previously had one-to-one aides, and to ensure that individual students’ needs would be met.

The intended staff cuts also posed a potential equity issue, the letter said: “The District should ensure that the ethnic and gender diversity that exists within the staff in our schools, which is disproportionately represented by the paraprofessional community, will not be negatively impacted should the proposed reduction in paraprofessionals be approved.”

Paraprofessional duties

A paraprofessional may be assigned to assist a student with special needs in the classroom, as per the student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

Montclair has, for a district of its size, a higher-than-average number of one-to-one paraprofessionals, according to Johnson.

Under New Jersey and federal law, each child is given an IEP that is consistent with their own needs, said NJDOE spokesperson Mike Yaple.

“We encourage districts to allow students to be in the least restrictive environment. Based on the child study team’s decision, best practice is to provide individual students with what is required. As districts strive to correct more restrictive placements and an overabundance of supplemental educational services, it is likely that one-on-one paraprofessionals will be reduced in favor of a shared paraprofessionals,” Yaple said.

Past cuts

This year isn’t the first time the district looked to cut paraprofessional jobs due to budget deficits.

In 2017, the district announced eliminating 50 paraprofessional jobs due to budget deficit of $1.8 million. The district was able to recall 30 full-time paraprofessionals.

For the 2018-2019 school year, facing a $1.5 million deficit, 10 paraprofessionals and bus aides faced losing their jobs, However, Montclair received an extra $500,000 in state aid year. Subsequently, the board announced it did not need to cut the jobs.