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Bridgeport BOE debates staff costs

August 28, 2018

BRIDGEPORT — The city school board voted to hire 62 new staff members at its first meeting of the school year on Monday but not without objections from three board members who say the salaries are too high.

“There are some astronomical salaries,” Chris Taylor, a freshman board member said, objecting particularly to a new Bassick gym teacher who will make nearly $76,000 a year and a bilingual school psychologist set to make $93,196 a year. “Do we need the most expensive gym teacher they make.”

Board member Dennis Bradley questioned if more due diligence could be done before hiring a retired school psychologist who is also collecting a full pension.

“Absolutely no effort was shown to find another person that could save the district money,” said Bradley, suggesting that the most expensive option is not always the best one.

Bradley, Taylor and Board Vice Chairman Hernan Illingworth were on the losing end of 6-3 vote against the certified staff appointments as well as the replacement of a human resources specialist who will make an annual salary of $80,000.

Illingworth said if Bridgeport were funded the right way he absolutely would hire the best qualified teacher.

“I want the best but we also have to face reality,” Illingworth said.

When Maria Pereira, a board member, noted that the panel hasn’t micromanaged staff hires in the past, a frustrated Illingworth quipped, “Well, let’s hire five more (specialists) at $80,000.”

Schools Superintendent Aresta Johnson brought the appointments to the board, telling the panel that the district is on track to hire 125 certified staff to replace employees who retired or resigned. About 30 vacancies remain, to be filled with long-term substitutes working toward certification. Two vacancies are in science, three in math.

The district of 21,000 students has about 2,800 staff members including 1,564 educators.

“We are in pretty good shape,” Johnson said.

Taylor thought otherwise, suggesting the human resources department was lacking for not posting openings on a website like Monster.com. He also said he heard the psychologist, Rita Doherty, was married to a judge and wondered if some “backroom deal” was under way.

Doherty is not married or related to a judge, she said on Tuesday.

Twice during the debate, however, the board chair chastised Taylor for publicly criticizing administrators trying to explain the situation to him.

Board member Ben Walker noted that the salaries offered are based on the teacher contract which takes education and experience into account. They are also factored into the budget with turnover savings.

Walker suggested cutting salaries will diminish the education of students.

“This is not where to make cuts,” Walker said.

Gary Peluchette, president of the Bridgeport Education Association, said Tuesday that city teachers are the lowest paid in Fairfield County.

“Combine that with the fact that we live in one of the most expensive areas in the country, and we can readily see that recruiting teachers for Bridgeport is a difficult job,” Peluchette said.

Frank Chester, the district’s personnel director, said there was one other candidate for the bilingual school psychologist position and she turned it down. The district has seven bilingual psychologist, the board was told, but also 3,700 bilingual students. If any need special education services, a school psychologist who speaks the language is required to take part in the individualized education program process.

Bradley suggested the board hold off on the position and hire an interpreter to help with bilingual translation. He was told that would place the district out of compliance with special education laws.

“If we don’t hire this person, I can assure you there will be cases filed when we miss timelines,” John Di Donato, the district’s chief of specialized instruction, said, adding the district battles to keep the staff it has.

Bradley said he doesn’t buy that the only way to find qualified applicants is by paying them higher salaries.

“I love and respect our teachers and support their pay,” Bradley said “What we are highlighting are the political abuses that this superintendent has chosen to place as a priority.”

Bradley said the district suffers from poor management, abuse of processes and a total lack of vision.

That, he added, is why teachers leave.

In July, during her evaluation process, Bradley told Johnson she was doing an outstanding job.

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