Proposed state cuts to funding for teacher assistants could leave Johnston County Schools scrambling to find enough bus drivers.
Most of Johnston’s teacher assistants also drive buses, and as the start of school looms, Superintendent Ed Croom said he does not know how much money Raleigh will appropriate for those positions. Last week, Croom told the school board that the state could cut TA funding by up to 50 percent.
Students head back to school Aug. 25, but, as the Herald went to press, state lawmakers had yet to pass a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1. The General Assembly should have adopted a spending plan by June 30, but legislators instead voted twice to extend their deadline. They have until the end of August under the most recent extension.
“The timing could not be worse,” Croom said. “We’re going to be in a scramble mode with trying to think about different things we can do to get bus drivers.”
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Johnston has about 250 positions for teacher assistants across the school system, chief personnel officer Brian Vetrano said. Croom implemented a hiring freeze for TAs in anticipation of cuts, Vetrano said, and the county currently has 27 vacancies. But if the state cut funding by 50 percent, he said, Johnston would need to let go another 100 or so teacher assistants.
Because most TAs drive school buses, it would be challenging to keep them behind the wheel if the state cut the funding for their classroom work, Vetrano said. Driving a bus is about a three-hour-a-day job, he said, and few employees could afford to work so few hours for a living.
And it’s not just the short hours that make it hard to find bus drivers, Croom said. The license requirements for school bus drivers have gotten so strenuous, he said, it doesn’t take much more training to qualify to drive an 18-wheeler. Croom worries that people might even start taking advantage the school system, he said, because they could get trained and then leave to drive a big rig.
Because bus drivers need so much training, Croom said, that also means it would be tough to replace drivers quickly if the state cut funding after school starts.
Donna Donovan is a teacher assistant in Lauren Beaver’s kindergarten class at West Smithfield Elementary School, which operates on a modified year-round schedule. In the mornings and afternoons, Donovan is also the proud driver of school bus 192.
“I absolutely love my job,” she said. “This school is so important to me.”
Having a teacher assistant in the classroom means that students get more one-on-one attention, which is especially valuable to children at a young age, Assistant Principal Mogie Reddy said.
“It’s so important to have an extra pair of hands to help with their transition to school,” she said.
While Ms. Beaver is busy leading activities for the class, Donovan often pulls a few children aside to work on learning material such as the alphabet, numbers and how to write their names. They also pick up social skills during that time, like how to share and take turns, she said.
Not all of the children in the class are on the same level, Donovan said, and the individual attention means that each student can progress at his own pace without holding others back.
For instance, student Joshua Wright recited the entire alphabet on Thursday and became the first member of the ABC Club. That’s less than two weeks after the kindergartners started school, Donovan said. While Joshua’s classmates are still learning to say their ABCs, Donovan said, he will start learning to recognize words.
By the end of the school year, she said, the same students who learned their ABCs in August will be reading books. Watching that progression is just part of what makes her job so wonderful, Donovan said.
“I just love these children,” she said.