In New York State, the minimum qualification to get hired as a public school teaching assistant is a high school diploma plus a handful of basic training courses aimed at ensuring the safety of students and their surroundings. It also requires the successful completion of a certification exam, though that’s given only in English, costs $54 to take, and requires a 52-mile trip from East Hampton to Bohemia, the nearest test center.
A successful candidate who gets hired at the Springs School then starts at a salary of $23,580 plus benefits — not that far off from what New York State considers “poverty line” earnings in 2023, which is $25,142 for a single-person household.
It’s not hard to guess, then, why Springs is having trouble attracting and retaining teaching assistants despite the entry-level qualifications, and despite a $200-per-college-credit bonus, paid to teaching assistants who choose to pursue higher education.
Filling empty T.A. spots could be as simple as paying more, said Debra Winter, the district superintendent — but where is Springs, which needed to pierce the tax cap for the 2023-24 school budget, going to get the money?
Meghan Payne, a special-education teacher, took to the podium at a school board meeting Tuesday night to suggest the district resume having a part-time superintendent when it replaces Ms. Winter, who is retiring in June after seven full-time years with the district. That could free up resources in the budget to boost teaching assistant salaries, Ms. Payne suggested.
“Could we use some of that money to trickle down to pay teaching assistants so that they can stay and live in Springs and be lifelong educators here?” she asked. “It’s a great school to work at. I love it here.”
Barbara Dayton, the board president, replied that the issue is “something that we’re very aware of,” but that that’s “not really a fair way to look at it.”
Yesterday Ms. Winter said the district needs a total of 14 teaching assistants; it now has seven, most of whom are assigned to the special-ed classrooms.
If the district could hire 10, she said, it would be possible to accommodate the six children in prekindergarten who are on the waiting list for the full-day program. There are 54 children in three prekindergarten classrooms, or 18 in each class; under state guidelines, Springs could go up to 20 if there were a T.A. in each of those rooms. Ms. Winter said, however, that she has to prioritize staffing older grades and special-education programs, because prekindergarten is not a state-mandated grade.
Ms. Dayton said the salary and hiring topics would continue to be discussed at future board meetings.
Also on Tuesday, the school board again entered into an agreement with the East Hampton School District in which East Hampton will provide lunches for Springs students who forget to bring lunch or who qualify for the federal free-and-reduced-cost lunch program. East Hampton will provide cold lunches that meet federal nutrition guidelines at a cost of $4.44 each for at least 50 meals per week; Springs bus drivers will pick up the lunches in the morning.
“We tried to use a local deli for that, but it didn’t work out, so we are going back to East Hampton,” Ms. Winter said.
The service will be paid for using a combination of general budget moneys and Susan’s Lunch Drawer, a charitable effort supported by community donors.
The resolution prompted a conversation about the possibility of providing healthful hot lunches for all students. Two other area schools, the Bridgehampton School and the John M. Marshall Elementary School in East Hampton, are able to offer free lunches to all students regardless of need. That’s because those schools exceed the federal threshold in percentage of the total student body eligible for free or reduced-price lunches and breakfasts.
But Springs doesn’t have a cafeteria program, which Ms. Winter said is the reason why few Springs parents fill out those forms. She said yesterday that having at least 40 percent of families applying would boost the district’s eligibility for federal grant money in other areas.
“We do whatever we can to help our parents,” she said. “The cost of living is just — everything is outrageous.”
Emma Field, a school board member, suggested the district push for parents to fill out that form by sending it home in students’ backpacks. Parents should keep an eye out for that possibility.