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Media, technology assistance suffer amid budget cuts at Pasco schools

WESLEY CHAPEL — Jean Marie Whaley was frustrated.

Six weeks into the school year, Whaley, one of Pasco's first instructional technology specialists, still had not found the time to train all teachers in the district's new math software programs.

She had iPads, digital cameras and SMART boards sitting unused. A long list of requests for her expertise remained unfulfilled.

As part of this year's budget cuts, the district laid off 14 elementary technology and media specialists, plus 28 assistants. The remaining ones now have to split their time between two schools instead of focusing on one, with dozens reassigned to different schools than the ones they worked at a year ago.

Whaley blamed that decision for a marked decline in services to students and teachers. She called the changes a professional frustration.

"You want something to work for the whole school and you want to be able to do a good job. But we have pretty much become maintenance people," said Whaley, 56, who's in her 30th year with the district. "I never, ever thought that technology would be cut."

Her disillusion is not singular.

Several media and technology specialists are raising concerns that their divided time has diluted their effectiveness at the same time the district and state have moved to increase student access to technology and digital media services in the schools. The situation has gained the attention of United School Employees of Pasco leaders, who have called a meeting on Thursday to hear firsthand accounts and determine whether the working conditions need formal attention.

At least one School Board member has heard complaints already.

"I have been getting some e-mails from teachers and parents along those lines," board member Alison Crumbley said. "This is one of the most important things we have to stay on top of."

Board member Cynthia Armstrong has gotten feedback, too. And while she acknowledged it's an important issue, Armstrong signaled that the problems are a symptom of tough financial times.

"It was an economic necessity," she said. "They are definitely going to be the first ones we want to bring back … as soon as we possibly can. Unfortunately, we were kind of saddled with restrictions as to which allocations we could do without, as far as meeting the class-size amendment."

No one wanted services slashed, board vice chairman Allen Altman agreed. But cutting them was a better than eliminating them, he added.

"It's unfortunate, but it is exactly what I expressed in our town hall meetings, that there are drastic and severe budget cuts and there would be an impact on the students we serve," Altman said. "There are multiple areas throughout the district this year that you could say are important but are facing reduced services. Our employees are stretched."

Brandon Maldonado, technology specialist at Watergrass and Wesley Chapel elementary schools, said he's trying to come to grips with the new reality. It's difficult, though, to meet the demands of the job on a severely limited schedule.

Maldonado, in his 16th year teaching, spends half of each day at each school, commuting at lunch time.

"While we're still trying to place the emphasis on instructional needs and working with the curriculum to support the needs of teachers and students, working less than 19 hours a week at each school, it's tough," said Maldonado, 38.

The district has added instructional assistants to help cover some of the tasks, including keeping the media centers open when the specialists are unavailable. But it's not the same as having the experts present.

"Being at one school is a difficult enough chore," particularly during computerized testing, Maldonado said. "With two schools testing at the same time, I was literally running between the two schools. It's impossible to provide that support if you're not scheduled to be there. It's not that you're going to say 'No,' though. I would never do that."

Such professionalism actually has some principals concerned.

Services are declining, Watergrass principal Scott Mitchell said. Children can check out books daily, but the media specialist isn't available to help teach research skills as often. Classes are getting about one-third less instruction there, he said.

Similar changes have occurred with the technology specialist. The specialists don't like to let the work slide, Mitchell noted.

"I have told them I don't want this to become two full-time jobs," he said of his two specialists. "We want to offer the best services we can. But we also don't want to burn them out."

Deer Park principal Margie Polen said her two specialists are keeping everything running smoothly as well, but they are probably doing two full-time jobs — one at Deer Park, another at Chasco Elementary — to make it so.

"Something has to come off the plate," Polen said. "It is a tremendous burden on them. I just applaud their effort."

Whaley and Maldonado lamented that many of the things that make the job satisfying, such as mentoring and participating in team and leadership meetings, are becoming the first to go.

"None of that has happened this year, because I'm simply not here to play that role," said Maldonado, who is keeping his post as Odyssey of the Mind coach at Watergrass despite the time constraints.

Whaley said she's had enough.

She had planned to enter the state's deferred retirement program this year, giving her five years more in the system. Instead, she's looking elsewhere.

"I'm leaving right after my daughter's wedding," she said. "This is too much."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Media, technology assistance suffer amid budget cuts at Pasco schools 10/01/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 1, 2011 2:41pm]

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