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Tonawanda school administrators questioned about teacher cuts

A debate about staffing levels stymied the Tonawanda School Board on Tuesday night, as the board and audience members questioned administrators about proposed teaching reductions.

The district presented a 2011-12 school year budget to voters last month that suggested there would be no staffing reductions after Tonawanda administrators negotiated concessions from the district's labor unions. Tonawanda eliminated almost three-dozen teaching positions to make ends meet last year.

The debate was around eliminating one full-time and one part-time social studies teacher, bumping one instructor up to a full-time English position and eliminating that teacher's part-time special-education spot, and creating two full-time elementary teaching positions. Several audience members questioned district officials about the decision.

"I can't understand -- why we are getting rid of our teachers?" asked resident Karen Russell. "We need to have them."

Many people in the audience praised social studies teachers Mary Schroeder and Shawn Barnum, who were in attendance. The proposals call for Barnum to be reduced to part-time, while Schroeder would be laid off completely.

"There's been a handful of people at Tonawanda who inspired me, and one of them is Shawn Barnum," said Jessica Stuart, a Tonawanda graduate and daughter of board President Sharon Stuart. "He works out of the box and takes things to the next level."

Several board members were disappointed they did not learn of the proposed staffing reductions during the budget planning process.

"I realize this is an emotional decision," said board member Demelt Shaw. "We want the best teachers, so let's keep the best teachers. I would have wished that I would have seen this coming."

Superintendent Whitney Vantine said the staffing recommendations were discussed among building supervisors, administrators and even the School Board last week. He noted, "Staffing is fluid."

"The decisions that were made were collaborative," he said. "They are decisions that I believe need to be made."

The board voted to table the proposed staffing reductions for further investigation. Lynn Casal, the only board member who voted against tabling the measures, thought the board should have accepted the recommendations of administrators.

"We have to be mindful of the taxpayers," she said. "I don't want to get rid of teachers either, but we can't afford to keep them around because they're nice people."

Ron Sesnie, president of the Tonawanda Education Association, said the reductions would impact the students, programs and the district. He asked the board to look higher for cuts.

"We need to right-size the district administration as well," Sesnie said. "It's a shell game."

The district has shuffled a significant number of administrators in recent weeks after Assistant Superintendent Robert Breidenstein announced he would become superintendent of the Salamanca City Central School District. Rather than hire another assistant superintendent for pupil personnel services, Mullen Elementary Principal Susan D'Angelo was appointed two weeks ago as director of special education for at least a year.

At Tuesday's meeting, the board approved moving Jessica Lyons to Mullen as principal, while athletic coordinator Bradly Halgash was appointed to Lyons' old position as assistant principal for Tonawanda High and Middle School. Both are also one-year transfers, and all three administrators will make their current salaries, plus an additional stipend ranging from $5,000 to $7,000. Vantine said the moves would help save the district about $100,000.

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