EAST MONTPELIER — A debate over how best to serve students who need extra help in math at U-32 Middle and High School just got personal, and while the School Board hasn’t yet reversed course, it did agree to take a fresh look at a suddenly controversial staffing decision.
Days before voters in Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester are set to collectively decide the fate of the $15.2 million U-32 budget, the board entertained a renewed push to salvage one of several positions targeted for elimination.
Two weeks after the head of the math department said concerns about the cut involved the “position” not the “person,” board members heard Wednesday night from students and parents who didn’t have enough good things to say about “Jim.”
“Everybody loves Jim,” student board member Lucy Wood said, referring to Jim Willis, the retired math teacher who staffs the “white table” and last year was honored as U-32’s educational support staff member of the year.
Ginger Knight said that line is unusually long — a testament to the work Willis has done and the relationships he forged with students who view him as a valuable resource.
“I have not met one student who doesn’t like him,” she said.
Knight, a junior, showed up at the board meeting with a super-sized card signed by students who aren’t interested in an administrative plan that would require the school’s math teachers to take turns filling the role Willis now does.
Big, red letters on the card’s front read, “Why Jim at math white table matters to us!” and prefaced the stories shared inside.
Knight said she considered a math tutor before determining she could get all the extra help she needed from the smiling guy who was being paid to provide it in a one-on-one setting.
“Jim has helped many students, and losing him in our math department will be detrimental to us,” Knight said.
East Montpelier parent Jennifer Myka said she was skeptical of a plan to rely on a rotation of math teachers to replace a staff member who connects with students.
“There are teachers in your math program who are not approachable, and you need to address that issue before you start taking away supports,” she said.
Myka said her primary concern was “equity.” She can afford to hire a math tutor for her child, but many other U-32 parents don’t have that option, she said. Myka also argued the board should consider cuts to the administration before targeting direct services to students.
Mack Gardner-Morse agreed other areas — athletics among them — should be looked at to ease budget pressures.
School Board Chairman Kari Bradley said the administrative team did what the board asked: Create a budget with no more than a 3 percent increase, and spare licensed classroom teachers.
“This proposed budget does that,” Bradley said, noting seven positions — five paraeducators, a food service employee and Willis — were recommended for cuts in response to steadily declining enrollment at the 7-12 school.
Superintendent Bill Kimball said that trend is expected to continue. U-32 will graduate 128 seniors this year, and the five elementary schools that feed it collectively enroll 77 kindergartners.
Despite this, some members were swayed by the outpouring of support for the positions. Even those who weren’t said they were willing to talk about it again.
School Director Karen Bradley said Principal Steven Dellinger-Pate should be offered an opportunity to again explain the proposed restructuring to help quell concerns among students, parents, faculty and now some board members.
School Director Scott Thompson is one of the latter. He said the proposed restructuring might be the “right idea,” but he feared it was “ahead of its time” and tone deaf to a key constituency.
“I’m really really uneasy and concerned that this is a setback from the point of view of the education of our students,” he said.
Student member Wood doesn’t have a vote but expressed competing opinions about what she dubbed “the Jim situation.”
On one hand, she credited Willis for his skill explaining math differently than it’s delivered in the classroom. On the other, she acknowledged the board’s “super-tough” dilemma, one that could spark “a spiraling debate about where to draw the line.”
“If the cut of Jim is reversed, then it sort of opens up a whole other can of worms about the other para-professionals that you’re cutting,” Wood said. “I’m sure they have just as impactful stories, but people aren’t here telling them.”
Kari Bradley agreed.
“That is a big concern for me,” he said. “What would be our criteria?”
The board will ponder that after Tuesday’s budget vote and before it meets again in May.
Kimball warned some of that discussion would occur in executive session. If Willis’ position is restored, he said, the $47,000 savings would need to be found in non-personnel areas because the date for issuing reduction-in-force notices has passed.