Senate leaders continue to propose cutting teacher assistants as a way to pay for a significant teacher salary bump, the first teachers have seen in years.
While the General Assembly debates back and forth over the impact teacher assistants have in the classroom, there’s another factor in the equation that is getting far less attention – who will drive the school buses?
“If they cut teacher assistants, it will have a major impact on transporting our students,” said Dr. Cheryl Benson, Assistant Superintendent for Franklin County Schools, a largely rural district just east of Wake County.
That’s because Franklin County relies heavily on teacher assistants, or “TAs” to double as school bus drivers. In order to even secure employment as a TA, every applicant must be able to obtain a commercial driver’s license and all are expected to drive bus routes.
If the original Senate budget proposal offer were to come to fruition – laying off all TAs in second and third grades – Franklin County could lose 44 teacher assistants. The county employs about 100 bus drivers, so the loss of even 20 TAs, which could come from a modified budget plan the Senate proposed on Tuesday, would still have a significant impact on getting students to school.
“As we sit here today, we don’t have a plan laid out to cope with the loss of a significant number of TAs like that,” said Doug Moore, Franklin County’s finance officer.
Not all school districts rely on teacher assistants to drive school buses, but many do – especially rural ones.
“About 50 percent of our school bus drivers are TAs,” said Cecil Davis, transportation director for Catawba County Schools.
“We’re looking at losing possibly 70 TAs here, and we employ about 270 school bus drivers. That’s going to have a dramatic impact on our ability to get students to school,” Davis said.
Davis figures they’ll have to double up routes and possibly change bell schedules or do other creative scheduling in order to make sure students get to school and get the instructional hours they need.
Hiring part time workers to fill in the gaps could be another possibility, but at this point in the summer, there is not much time to recruit and train new hires to drive bus routes.
To complicate the task of recruiting, the routes that the district would have to hire for would be the shorter ones that TAs typically drive. Longer bus routes of six to seven hours’ driving time per day are handled by workers whose sole job is to drive a bus – which means they qualify for benefits like health insurance and retirement.
The shorter bus routes would require finding folks who are willing to break up their days driving an hour in the morning and an hour or so in the afternoon – earning $13-15/hour with no benefits package.
“It becomes difficult to recruit drivers when you don’t have that other job [the teacher assistant position] to entice them to come, which gives them benefits,” said Franklin County Finance Officer Doug Moore.
“It’s really hard to go out and find people on the street who would be willing to bust up their day and drive a bus in the morning and afternoon for practically nothing,” said Moore.
Cumberland County Superintendent Frank Till said that in order to make up for the loss of possibly 60 percent of their teacher assistants, who also double as school bus drivers, Cumberland County plans to pull custodians, cafeteria workers, and bookkeepers to drive the buses.
“We’d lose almost our entire school bus driving force,” said Till. “So as a result, most schools won’t be as clean, we’d have trouble delivering food services, etc…we’d just go without in order to get students to school. But even more important, we wouldn’t have that support in the classroom that is badly needed.”
Teacher assistants have been at the heart of the budget debate for 2015.
In their initial budget offer, Senate leaders proposed cutting all TAs in the second and third grades – a $233 million reduction that would go toward giving teachers an 11 percent pay bump.
House lawmakers have decried the cuts, saying that teacher assistants are a badly needed resource in K-3 classrooms. But Senate leaders say TAs don’t have a significant impact on student achievement.
“That’s a false statement,” said Franklin County’s Doug Moore. “That’s off the mark to say the TAs are not a valued part of the instructional process. Because if TAs are able to help a teacher focus more on students, especially when you have class sizes that are 17-20 students, then they are indirectly contributing to student achievement themselves.”
In Franklin County, TAs are nowhere to be found in second and third grade classrooms thanks to funding cuts that have taken place over many years. So the district will be forced to cut its TAs in kindergarten and first grades – a critical time for preparing students to meet the state’s new reading proficiency standards by the third grade.
Senate leaders have budged a little on cutting teacher assistants, offering in their latest proposal to just eliminate the equivalent of all third grade TAs while giving teachers an 8 percent raise. But funds for the remaining TAs would be paid for with nonrecurring funds, meaning those funds would expire next July.
House lawmakers came back to the Senate proposal by asking for more flexibility for school districts, allowing them to choose between giving teachers a full 8 percent raise or using some of that money to preserve teacher assistant positions.
Either way, teacher assistants are already not adequately funded, said Moore. And it’s just getting worse.
“That’s about like saying I’m going reimburse you, for every mile you drive, 10 cents a mile. And you say ‘But that’s not even enough money for gas to get my car started in the first place!’ and I respond, “But I’m reimbursing you for every mile you drive,” said Moore.
“It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Education reporter Lindsay Wagner can be reached at 919-348-5898 or firstname.lastname@example.org