By MARINA WATERS
It was Chad Fleenor’s first meeting as a Washington County Board of Education member Thursday night, but that didn’t keep him from making a pair of motions regarding Washington County classrooms during the board’s roundtable discussion.
Fleenor, who is one of three new board members, made a motion to add seven teaching positions to the school system in order to address what he considers to be overcrowded classrooms in Washington County. The motion involved taking $500,000 from the school system’s fund balance reserves in order to fund the positions. The motion failed in a 3-6 vote with Fleenor, Annette Buchanan and David Hammond in favor and Phillip McLain, Todd Ganger, Mitch Meredith, Jason Day, Mary Beth Dellinger and Keith Ervin in opposition of the motion.
“We talked about class sizes. I’m concerned because they’re big,” Fleenor said. “We’re holding teachers accountable for their testing scores. If you put more people in there, to me, that’s more demand on them.”
The school system is within state requirements, which sets the classroom student limit at 25 students for grades K-3, 30 students for grades 4-6 and 35 students for grades 7-12, as listed in the board’s policy on class sizes. However, it’s still been a concern for board members.
Ervin, who was unanimously elected as board chairman at the meeting, said the previous board asked Interim Director of Schools Bill Flanary to see what he could do about reducing class sizes, specifically in K-3. After Fleenor’s motion, Flanary said a solution to that problem would most likely be a costly one.
“I talked to a teacher today who has 24 kids in her first grade class and it about broke my heart. But the solution costs $75,000,” Flanary said. “I want the smallest class sizes we can afford.”
Before making his final motion to add positions, Fleenor made a different motion — which was later withdrawn — to reduce the system’s number of instructional coaches from 11 to seven.
“I don’t see anything we can do to fix (classroom sizes),” Fleenor said. “The only thing is we haven’t had academic coaches before. I hate it because I know they do a lot for the administrators. I know there has been some real value. I know some people I’ve talked to really love their coaches.”
Academic coaches are designed to provide teachers with guidance and training to improve their classroom instruction and engagement. Five of the county’s 11 academic coaches are federally funded. However, Flanary told the board that, should that number be cut down, those people would be unemployed — and it’s no guarantee that they could be put back into a classroom.
“If this motion passes, these people are not going to have a job,” Flanary said. “They are unemployed. I will work like a dog to get them somewhere, somehow. But they are unemployed. I can’t guarantee all these people have the right certifications (to be placed as a teacher for the overcrowded classrooms). I would have to create positions.”
Ervin and Flanary both suggested changing the board’s policy on class sizes to better reflect the wishes of the BOE. Board members also suggested allowing Flanary to reduce class sizes without a motion from the nine-member board.
Meanwhile, Ganger felt that asking the director to add those reduced instructional coaches back into the system didn’t allow the director to do his job.
“We are an exemplary school. We’re a level five school. We’re doing something right,” Ganger said. “So why does this board want to now handcuff the director, making him do something that’s maybe not in the best interest of the school system right now? I don’t believe in saying, ‘We’ve got five people unemployed now. Find them a job.’ I’m a believer in letting the people do their jobs, whether it’s the director, principals, teachers, whoever. Let them do their jobs.
“If you make a motion to eliminate positions, you are handcuffing the director of schools in doing something right then and there. I’m sorry, but you are.”
Dellinger, who made a motion during a budget meeting to reduce last year’s 12 instructional coaches down to four, said she would like to see a change in how the county utilizes the coaches, saying that six would suffice. Meanwhile, Hammond said he felt it was a board member’s duty to try to address concerns, even if it means adjusting the budget.
“Board members are responsible for the budget at the end of the day,” Hammond said. “No one wants to eliminate positions. No one. Dr. Flanary said he could not find the funds. So if we have overcrowding in classrooms, who suffers? The teachers, the students. So how do we correct that if the funds aren’t there? We, as responsible elected officials, take (instructional coaches) away.”
Flanary said that should any instructional coaches be cut, he suspected they would find a position in another school system and that Washington County would lose them. Ganger said he felt losing teachers and administrators, even outside of potentially cutting positions, was not a teacher or principal problem, but a board of education problem.
“There’s a reason we’re losing a lot of teachers and principals,” Ganger said. “The problem is not with our teachers, principals or anything like that. The problem is the board of education. And we have got to fix that and let the people do their jobs.”
Next up for the board of education will be a called meeting scheduled with the new Washington County Board of Commissioners for Tuesday, Sept. 25 at 5 p.m. at the Washington County Department of Education, located at 405 W College Street, Jonesborough. That meeting will be held to discuss the Jonesborough School project.