On any given day, paraprofessionals in Columbia County schools are working with students, checking homework, supervising lunch periods and filling in when teachers are called from classrooms.
"We are probably the A-number-one support system in this school," said Cindy Brown, a paraprofessional at Euchee Creek Elementary. "We're pulled for everything."
But lately, Ms. Brown and other paraprofessionals said they feel like they are on a confusing roller coaster ride with the changing information about Gov. Roy Barnes' education reform bill and the impact it could have on their jobs.
As a fast-growing school system, Columbia County has become dependent on paraprofessionals -- parapros -- as a way to lower teacher-pupil ratios at the elementary level without hiring additional teachers.
But under the education reform bill -- approved by the House and now before the Senate -- schools can only use certified teachers to lower those ratios, a measure that ultimately could change the way Columbia County uses paraprofessionals and the number it employs. The concern has been that for school systems like Columbia County, hiring new teachers and maintaining parapros won't be feasible financially.
"It's still too unknown," Columbia County schools Superintendent Tommy Price said. "We do know there are some changes that are going to impact how we're using parapros right now, but it's too early to tell exactly the full extent of that and how it ultimately may play out."
Mr. Price met with local legislators and the governor's budget representatives Friday to discuss the impact of the reform bill on Columbia County schools. The meeting, he said, put his mind at ease somewhat -- especially the news of an amendment that gives school systems time to meet new class-size requirements.
"The bottom line is it does look like they're going to allow some limited use of parapros in certain grades, particularly kindergarten," Mr. Price said. "They've given you a four-year period to progressively work down to the class sizes. But until I can get back and play with the numbers it's hard to kind of tell what it's going to mean to us."
Columbia County employs roughly 250 paraprofessionals. The majority of those are in kindergarten through third grades, where average teacher-student ratios is 1-to-23 in kindergarten and 1-to-25 in first to third grades.
Under the education reform bill, the maximum ratio is 1-to-20 in grades one through three and 1-to-18 in kindergarten.
State Rep. Ben Harbin said that although paraprofessionals can't be used to reduce class-size ratios, school systems should not panic and that the bill is not intended to eliminate paraprofessionals. The bill, he said, does provide new funding for classroom aides such as parapros.
"The state's not saying they can't have them," Mr. Harbin said. "There's some funding mechanism for parapros, but it can't be used to reduce class size. They have to truly be smaller class sizes, which is what I think parents want."
Without a transition period, Mr. Price said the school system could need 78 new teachers for kindergarten through third grade to comply with the bill, which would cost about $3.5 million. Mr. Price said he's also concerned about finding enough qualified teachers and classroom space for them.
But a four-year transition -- if approved -- is good news for Columbia County, Mr. Price said.
"It's not going to be as dramatic," he said. "At least some para positions will continue to probably be important to us. But there's no question, too, that you can't depend on paras as you have in the past, because they're not simply going to fit into that classroom formula."
Still, Mr. Price said he doesn't disagree with the idea of lowering class-size ratios with certified teachers.
"The bill's got a lot in it, and I think there's a lot of good in the bill," he said. "It's such an abrupt change. You can't argue with the concept here. There may be some way we can at least mitigate this impact."
Mr. Harbin said the four-year transition will give the state time to make sure the new class-size requirements don't have a dramatic impact on school systems or parapros. And, he said, school systems with limited space could use certified specialists to rotate among elementary classes to meet the bill's requirements instead of putting two teachers in one room.
When all is said and done, Mr. Harbin said he thinks Columbia County will be able to keep the number of parapros it has now.
"There is a lot of confusion, a lot of misinformation and even those of us who think there are some good parts to this bill are still trying to get every `T' crossed and every `I' dotted to make sure we understand it fully," Mr. Harbin said. "I think overall it's a good bill."
Reach Peggy Ussery at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 112.
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