Buoyed by advice from a neighbor, members of the Springs School Board opted Tuesday to embark on a search for their next superintendent themselves, rather than hire a consulting firm to do it for them.
The move saves the Springs School District potentially tens of thousands of dollars in consultant fees. For instance, for its spring 2019 superintendent search, the Sag Harbor School District agreed to pay the firm School Leadership L.L.C. $18,000 plus expenses.
The board made the decision after hearing from Diane Hausman, the president of the Montauk School Board — which, earlier this year, happened to hire away Josh Odom, the former Springs assistant principal, as its own new superintendent.
In Montauk, Ms. Hausman told her Springs board counterparts, “We know we can make our own decisions, and we did. I found it very rewarding, to be honest. It was good to get in there and really meet the people. . . . It was a very worthwhile process.”
The idea of hiring a consultant to do the searching for Montauk was only “an extremely brief discussion,” Ms. Hausman said. She described a process in which three separate committees screened candidates, conducted interviews, and made recommendations, beginning the process in the fall of 2022 and completing it by the following spring. The Springs board decided to create a community-needs survey on the matter, and decided to list the job ad on Indeed.com and possibly with the New York State School Boards Association, both of which would direct applicants to apply via OLAS, a BOCES-run database of jobs in schools throughout New York. The board also set a tentative timeline to post the opening by mid-October and solicit applicants up until the Thanksgiving holiday break.
The cash-strapped Springs district, which is still cutting costs wherever it can following the passage of its tax-capbusting budget in May, also began discussing a costly solution to the problem of its shortage of teaching assistants: Debra Winter, the superintendent, said it would cost about $600,000 to bring salaries for those employees, and all others, she later noted, to a level that’s competitive with neighboring school districts. The district needs a total of 14 teaching assistants, but it only has seven.
Some of Springs’s T.A.s spoke up at the end of Tuesday’s school board work session, saying they love their jobs but that the hours are long, the work is demanding, and the pay is inadequate.
“ A lot of the assistants are here, some at 6:30 till 5:30 at night,” said Larissa Davidson, a Springs parent who works as a kindergarten T.A. “They’re asked to come in to chaperone everything — games, dances, Special Olympics. You know, we’re the ones that are called . . . we are carrying the burden. . . . We’re covering the entire school.”
In New York State, the T.A. position is an entry-level job requiring a minimum of a high-school diploma, fingerprinting, and a handful of training courses in subjects such as the identification of child abuse. In Springs, those assistants start at one of the lowest salaries among district employees: $23,580 plus benefits. To put that in perspective, the state considers “poverty line” earnings in 2023 to be $25,142 for a single-person household.
Carla Desiderio, who said she is in her 18th year “juggling many hats” as a T.A. in Springs, got choked up when she said that “it’s a struggle out here. . . . I love my co-workers and the job and teaching thekids....Ilovebeingouthere.I want to be out here, I want to stay out here, but the pay could come up. It would help getting good staff.”
Margarette Doyle, a Springs parent and previously a first-grade teaching assistant who was shifted to a special-education classroom this year, said that “this is a wonderful school to work in and I love the job, but it’s very hard.” She made a plea for more help on the car line in the morning and on the playground at recess. “We are so stretched. We are dealing with children who fall and scrape their knee, who need the bathroom. . . . We really, really, really need to have extra help.”
Ms. Doyle later continued, “We very rarely take a full lunch because we know our colleagues need us to come back and help. We deal with a lot of issues . . . and we do the best we can, but it is very tough. All of this we do for — you know how much we get paid. Most of us really, really love what we do, and that’s why we’re staying, but it’s heartbreaking for a lot of us to see what’s going on.”
Ms. Winter said Springs T.A.s have requested the ability to have planning periods alongside the classroom teachers they support, as well as the ability to attend “specials” like art and gym with their classes, but the school schedule doesn’t accommodate that.
“I haven’t been to a special in two years,” Ms. Davidson said, “and so when kids have to go to the bathroom, the teachers have to figure it out, because I don’t make the scheduling. I’m told where to go. I’m in a sixth-grade classroom fourth periods, and I also take my own lunch at some point during the day.”
Monique Sullivan, a second-grade teacher who is co-president of the faculty union, the Springs Teachers Association, said that “we’re getting very creative with the whole search of the superintendent, and I think that’s great and we should be doing that, but we need to be just as creative with the search for the T.A.s.”
She pointed out that although the substitute teachers don’t get benefits, they are earning more per day than the teaching assistants. “It’s such an easy fix. You can’t be paying subs more than we’re paying T.A.s and we’re saying these T.A.s are invaluable to us. But we’re saying, ‘You’re not as valuable as a substitute.’ It doesn’t make any sense, and it’s reflected that way in their pay.”
“What else can we do to retain T.A.s?” Ms. Sullivan continued. “You have to be more up-front. It can’t be an advertisement that says, ‘Do you want the same hours as your child?’ You just heard Margarette explain what her day is like — that is not a realistic depiction of just having hours the same as your child of what the job entails. You’re then going to have that person start and lose them right away because you’re not up-front with them.”
It became clear during the meeting that there is some confusion over whether the T.A.s were being mandated to work the 10 or 11-hour days that Ms. Davidson and Ms. Doyle described.
“They get an hourly rate for anything beyond their seven hours,” Ms. Winter said.
“Are they mandated to be there early and late?” asked Pat Brabant, a school board member.
“No,” Ms. Winter replied.
The teaching assistants, however, chimed in to say “Yes, we are,” and stated that they step up to do so because they need the extra pay.
“If none of us chose to, nobody would be here,” one of the T.A.s replied from the audience.
“I think we should have a look at that,” said Barbara Dayton, the school board president.
Also Tuesday, the board signed an agreement with the Eleanor Whitmore Early Childhood Center to send up to six students to prekindergarten there at a cost of $5,400 per child. Springs had four students on a waiting list for its own program, but this move enables it to accommodate all students. The district will access a government grant to pay for the services.