New Paltz School Board asked to reconsider elimination of tech positions

When voters in the New Paltz Central School District head to the polls at the high school on Tuesday, May 21, it will be to decide whether or not to approve a proposed 2019-2020 budget of $63,640,000. That dollar amount is set in stone, established as the final amount to place before voters when the budget was adopted by the district’s Board of Education in April. But the manner in which to use those funds is once again under contention, despite what voters will read in a budget newsletter already printed.

The New Paltz BOE met on Wednesday, May 8 for their regular meeting, which included a final public hearing on the budget as mandated by law. And the public gave the board an earful about their decision to eliminate the positions of four “sys-ops” employees; systems operation specialists who work as technology assistants to the teachers and who, according to several of the speakers at last Wednesday’s meeting, are the people who do the real heavy lifting in the schools when it comes to technology issues.

At a School Board forum on the budget earlier this spring, when the budget was still in the developmental stage, a number of local residents attended and spoke about their belief that smaller class sizes were the greatest priority, particularly at the kindergarten and young elementary stages. Class sizes in the elementary schools are projected for next year at approximately 20-21 per kindergarten class, 22-23 in first and second grades, 21-22 in third grade and 23-24 for fifth grade classes.

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A number of speakers who identified themselves as kindergarten teachers spoke of the value of having a maximum of 18 students in their classes, and several parents, some armed with petitions signed by many others, stood to speak in agreement, noting the growth and progress they’ve seen in their own children when classes are small.  

But because the state aid of $16 million came in at $334,701 less than initially anticipated, the initial budget proposed by the superintendent and assistant superintendent called for tabling the hiring of three elementary school teachers to replace three retiring teachers, which would mean maintaining current class sizes.

As a result of the community feedback, board members said at the next meeting that they would not approve a budget that did not include the hiring of elementary school teachers to bring down class sizes. Trustees laboriously combed through the budget proposal, line by line, in an effort to keep the dollar amount the same but find a way to shift funds toward hiring four full-time teachers and a library clerk. That was accomplished in the end, but only by eliminating the four sys-ops positions.

At the Wednesday, May 8 public hearing, the board heard from a number of speakers who voiced their concern.

Kathryn Stewart, New Paltz High School math teacher and vice-president of the teacher’s union, was representative of the remarks made. She urged the board to find the funding to keep the sys-ops positions, making an impassioned plea voicing her concern. “I continue to be utterly puzzled about the false binary that is being presented to us,” she said, “that we are getting rid of the sys-ops so that we can have smaller class sizes.” It doesn’t have to be a conflict, as board members have said, she noted, to have smaller class sizes and keep the sys-ops employees.

“You have an almost $64 million budget,” Stewart said. “We’re looking for $150,000. We need those sys-ops. Our students need our sys-ops. The teachers need our sys-ops. You’ve heard from all of us; we’re the ones in the building. Talk to the director of technology; ask him questions. Ask Barbara Clinton, and the other building principals. Talk to the students. I’ve talked to all these people, and not one of them thinks it’s a good plan to get rid of the sys-ops.”

Noting the presentation given earlier that evening about future technology plans for the schools, Stewart said, “I’m looking at all these fantastic plans on the slides, and thinking, ‘Who’s going to do all of that?’ We had a whole day of professional development recently, and it was the high school sys-op who trained all of the teachers from the district on Google Classroom.” The four sys-ops currently employed by the district have been “the real integrated instructional technology teachers in the schools,” Stewart claimed. “Do they have the fancy degree? No. But they’ve been far more effective than the two [integrated technology teachers] that we’ve had in my tenure, who had the fancy degree.”

In closing, Stewart said that those inside the school are literally “panicked” at the thought of losing the sys-ops employees.

New Paltz High School English teacher, Michelle Diana, who noted she has never felt the need to address the board before but found this issue too compelling to stay silent, said that the only reason anyone would contemplate eliminating a sys-op was if they didn’t know the vital importance of that position in today’s age of accelerating technology. “Trying to keep up with technology is often like trying to stem the tide. The teachers try their best to keep abreast of everything, but it’s coming at us fast and furious. For this reason, most businesses are increasing their tech departments, adding further support for their employees.” The decision to eliminate the sys-ops in the New Paltz district, she added, would be “extremely short-sighted.”

The high school sys-op, Katherine McEachin, spoke to the board to clarify what a person in her position does. For one thing, she noted, a sys-op serves as “level one” support to address the easier problems, which allows the technicians to reserve their time to focus on the more complicated issues. But beyond that, a technician is responsible for making sure the hardware and software work, she said, while a sys-op is the person who sits down and actually works with the student or teacher on technology issues.

“It’s not the role of a technician to help a teacher who is having formatting issues while they’re creating a quiz, or to sit with a student who is having trouble understanding the programs that they need to use. That is what our role is. We’re the ones who work with the teachers and students, and the technicians work with devices and programs.”

Another role the sys-op performs in the district has to do with the type of professional development Stewart referenced in her remarks. “That’s been a big part of the role of a sys-op in the New Paltz district,” McEachin said. “We provide training for large groups on conference days, and for small groups during and after school, and one-on-one. And to support those sessions, we provide daily on-call support and training for teachers and students for a large variety of programs and devices.”

By the end of the meeting, the board decided to “leave the conversation open.” The budget vote for a $64 million budget will go on as planned, but how the funds will be allotted, should the budget pass, remains under consideration. 

The budget vote and approval of two trustees for two seats opening on the School Board will be held on Tuesday, May 21 from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. at the high school. For more information, visit newpaltz.k12.ny.us.

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