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BELLOWS FALLS — School Superintendent Christopher Pratt announced last week that he is terminating 36 out of the 84 paraprofessionals that currently work for the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union for the 2020-21 school year.

The reduction in force is in response to the financial shortfalls the state is anticipating because of the coronavirus pandemic, but it also addresses a longstanding thorny issue in the supervisory union — it has the highest ratio of para-professionals to students in the state, and the district has been under pressure for several years by the state to do something about it.

Pratt, in a news release, thanked the para-professionals for their dedication and hard work, and he said it is "one of the hardest decisions" he's ever had to make.

But he said the financial crunch facing the state, as well as local schools, has to be addressed, and other avenues the supervisory union has proposed haven't worked out.

"I am extremely saddened to announce that due to the COVID-19 pandemic we are facing and the uncertainty of the stability of our economy, on Wednesday, Windham Northeast Supervisory Union released 36 para-educators from their jobs starting on June 30, 2020," Pratt wrote.

"This decision has been one of the most challenging, difficult decisions that I have had to make in my 26 years in education. This is not something any superintendent wants to do, especially to the professionals who have given so much of their time and heart to the students that they work with. I would like to thank all of the employees that this decision has impacted for everything that they have done for our school, students, and community," Pratt wrote.

The school district has been struggling for a way to address the coronavirus financial challenges, with no luck. Last week, a move to offer experienced teachers an early retirement incentive failed on a close vote..

Pratt also announced several other immediate cutbacks, including the furlough last week of 11 school bus drivers in the district. They will be called back once school is back in normal session, he said.

Two positions in the main office have been eliminated, he noted, and the positions of a floating nurse and director of professional development have been cut to half time.

Pratt didn't give an estimate of what the action would save the supervisory union; all the school budgets, with the exception of the Grafton-Athens-Westminster elementary school budget, have already been approved by voters.

David Clark, chairman of the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union, and a member of the Bellows Falls Union High School Board, said the paraprofessionals work for Pratt, and it was his decision, although he said the school boards are well aware of the para-to-student ratio problem and largely support the decision. He called it a longstanding problem that has not been addressed by prior superintendents.

By his estimation, the cuts announced by Pratt on Thursday will save $1.5 million.

"The fact that Superintendent Chris Pratt stuck his neck out and did something that previous superintendents lacked the will to do simply speaks to the strengths of both his leadership and his character. I suspect that there will be significant push back to his decision, which will be both loud and well intentioned. However, this paradigm change was critically needed even if it was a long time in coming, and I believe he will have the strong support of his boards for his courageous actions," Clark said Thursday afternoon.

Clark pointed to a 2019 report called "The Futures Report" that evaluated the education services in the district. One of its recommendations called for "reducing unnecessary reliance or overstaffing of para-eductor positions."

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The report noted that WNESU had a high percentage of students with an individual education plan, 18.6 percent, compared to 15.9 percent statewide. In 2019, the percentage was 27.09 percent.

Lily Hart, a teacher at Bellows Falls Union High School, and one of the leaders of the ad hoc committee of the Windham Northeast Teachers Association, condemned the action and said it is short-sighted.

When students return to the classroom, hopefully next fall, they will need all the support teachers and staff available, said Hart.

"There is a lot of anger and disbelief out there," said Hart, noting she is well aware that the school boards in the Windham Northeast Supervisory Union have already been talking about the financial consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. "I thought, oh, they'll cut 10 to 15 positions," said Hart. "I know there is a lot of emotion that people have about it — anger and disbelief — also, bewilderment.

"It's not like there's less need for these paraprofessionals," she said, calling the decision "staggering."

Some special education students with individual learning programs have one-on-one aides, she said. Of the 84 total paraprofessionals, 30 are one-on-one aides, she said.

Hart said the school has been saving money with the schools closed — including the formal cancellation of the spring sports season, as well as other expenditures that haven't been made.

Hart said the superintendent and the school boards are well within their legal rights to reduce the staff, under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement for the support staff. The teaching staff have a separate agreement, she noted.

The April 15 deadline in the teachers contract for any reduction in force passed without any action by the school district, although there was an attempt to cut 15 percent of the BFUHS budget before the April 15 deadline. That failed as well.

"Obviously things are going to be different" in the fall, Hart said, and she said it is important for the students to have consistency. "It's really de-stabilizing and it breaks my heart. These kids have come to trust and rely on the paras." She believes the work performed by the paraprofessionals will shift to the teachers.

"There are fewer hands to do the work," she said.

"It's going to be bad for the kids and bad for the community, too," she said, noting many of the paras live and pay taxes in the school district.

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