MHUSD saves autism specialists from cut


The boardroom at Morgan Hill Unified School District was packed with 40 extra people, tense with anticipation, as some in the audience wiped away tears in an emotional hour-filled discussion.

Up for discussion at Tuesday night’s meeting was a resolution to decrease the number of classified employees due to lack of funds or lack of work. What attracted most of those in the audience to speak at the meeting was the elimination of the classification “paraeducator” for nine positions, part of El Toro Elementary School’s autism program, which has 21 students. Their titles would be eliminated – most are behavior specialists – and those employees would be re-classified as instructional aides, thus receiving a 30 percent pay cut.

“I’m a single mom, raising a teenager, it’s really hard, it’s a major cut in our paycheck. I don’t know how I’m going to do it,” said Felicia Bogden, a paraeducator behavior specialist with the autism program at El Toro Elementary.

At the end of the discussion, board trustee Peter Mandel proposed removing the paraeducators from the resolution, thus exempting them. The board voted unanimously to pass the rest of the resolution to discontinue classified positions, which include reducing the months worked for the director of transportation from 12 months to 10, eliminating current open positions such as staff secretary and senior account clerk, or reducing work days for bus drivers or food services.

The elimination of the paraeducator classification for special education would have saved $127,000, although it would not go toward the general fund, said Bonnie Tognazzini, deputy superintendent.

“Truly, the purpose of the resolution of all positions was that we are looking at realigning some salaries so we can pay for some increases,” said Tognazzini.

The savings of the elimination of some of the classified positions would go to salary raises of other employees.

As part of a study conducted four years ago as part of negotiations with employee union group SEIU, a third party interviewed employees and looked at other districts to compare salaries.

Many spoke on behalf of the paraeducators in the public comment portion of the discussion, including Joan Best, a teacher for the autism program at El Toro who works with the paraeducators. She said paraeducators have more to deal with than the typical instructional aide.

“These children have aggression, frustration, nonverbal and severe developmental issues,” she said. “I expect a great deal with more, and I expect it from my paraeducators. I implore you to reconsider.”

Parent Victoria Herrick who has a daughter she described as “severely autistic” said if they took away the paraeducators, she would not keep her child in the program.

“I am not sending my daughter to school where it will be no more than a babysitting service,” she said.

Parent Pascal Siamey shared the value of the program for his daughter, Sara who is autistic.

“I don’t know how much I can say thank you,” he said, gesturing toward the teachers and paraeducators in the audience. “The program is working.”

“Can you wave a magic wand and reclassify these children? If you don’t have these people, you’re in essence throwing these children away and I don’t think you’re those kind of people,” said Britton Middle School teacher Virginia Rush.

For board trustee Claudia Rossi, a parent of a child with autism herself, the issue hit close to home.

“I’ve met aides, and have had the honor and good fortunate to meet with paraeducators who have worked with my boy a few years ago. I will never be convinced that aides and paraeducators are interchangeable,” she said to a roar of applause from the audience.

Trustee Bob Benevento asked the board to consider other implications if they passed the resolution eliminating the positions.

“I would also ask you to consider, the impact that might be placed on this district in terms of legal action. And you know that there are. Addressing this issue, I prefer to see the position protected in some fashion,” said Benevento.

“I will not support this resolution,” said board vice president Don Moody to more applause from the audience. “I don’t feel we should touch this program.”

Board president Ron Woolf brought up the cuts to education in the past couple of years. MHUSD is facing a $1.2 million cut this year.

“Every time I come to a board meeting, all I hear is cut, cut, cut,” he said. “I’m asking everybody in this room to go out there and pressure somebody that deals with education. Be it your state legislator, the people that control the money. We’re the ones that have to make the tough decisions, the furlough days, the reclassifications. Personally, I’m tired of it.”

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