Stafford Schools Superintendent Speaks About Philosophy Behind Transfers

By DAVID BIGGY | Jun 21, 2017
File Photo by: Ryan Morrill

On May 11, Stafford Township Superintendent George Chidiac and the Board of Education sat inside the Stafford Township Arts Center and came under fire from nearly two dozen individuals, who essentially said Chidiac and the board were making a bad decision in maneuvering 49 staff and faculty members among the district’s five buildings.

Several of those individuals who went to the microphone to speak pointed at and called out Chidiac, specifically, as the man behind what one boldly called “a senseless shakeup.” No doubt, the maneuvers created a buzz and ruffled some feathers among the flock – many of whom were in the audience that night to applaud those who spoke – and board member Tammy Nicolini even acknowledged that the entire board understood the maneuvers certainly were not a popular thing with them.

Still, the board unanimously, save one abstention, voted to make the transfers, leaving many shaking their heads as they departed from the building upon the meeting’s adjournment. The big question that was raised a bunch of times can be summed up in one word – why?

Recently, once much of the mayhem surrounding the situation cooled down a bit, Chidiac sat down with The SandPaper and addressed the how and what that goes into such a big, even if unpopular, decision and ultimately answers the why.

“It’s definitely not as black and white as many people would think,” the superintendent said. “There are a lot of factors involved and it takes awhile to sort it all out. Every year, there are different factors to consider when approaching how to best educate our students and make our district better.”

And to use a sports analogy, Chidiac is the head coach of the team. He gets paid to guide the team to victory – and ask any head coach, whose role it is to steer the ship, his or her team, toward a position of success, and that individual likely would say the job is a double-edged sword. He or she has decisions to make, but they’re not always met with delight from the players.

“In the end, I’m the manager of the team and every decision I make is done with the best interest of our students and the district, as a whole, in mind,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of good things during the past four years that I’ve been here. The board of education trusts me, and I’m hopeful that the public trusts me to make the right moves for the whole team.”

Given the backlash he received during the May 11 board meeting, it’s obvious some don’t trust Chidiac to make the right moves. However, is it possible many among the public or most staff within the schools don’t realize all the factors involved? And what is involved, exactly?

While many criticized the involuntary transfers of 10 teachers, a pair of principals and 19 cafeteria and playground aides, nobody went to the microphone on May 11 and asked about the 10 voluntary transfers, or recent retirements, or the possibility that some teachers were leaving the district, and how any of that may have factored into the equation.

Every year, teachers and staff have the option to request a voluntary transfer to a different position. Sometimes, those requests cannot be honored for varying reasons, Chidiac said.

“I had several voluntary requests this year that we couldn’t honor,” he said, noting that he’s received more than 10 voluntary transfer requests during several years. “And because voluntary transfers have to be requested each year, some of the ones we honored this year have been asking for a couple of years, and we finally were able to honor those requests. But honoring those requests rely on other factors – other transfers, retirements, somebody leaving the district.”

And those are just a few of the pieces to completing a big, constantly changing puzzle. Another big factor is enrollment, which can lead to fluctuations in class sizes at varying grade levels. It’s a fact, after all, that the student population within a specific building – given the structure of the Stafford district, with a tiered system according to grade level – may change significantly from one year to the next because no building within the district houses more than two grades.

Interestingly enough, when looking at the enrollment numbers the past two school years, 2015-16 and 2016-17, the district only had one less student – 2,199 to 2,198 – to start this past year. Enrollment numbers typically change slightly as the year goes on because of transfers either into or out of the district or other circumstances. But those numbers are based on the entire district. The individual schools’ enrollment figures may be quite different from one year to another.

According to Chidiac, the enrollment for second grade during the 2017-18 year is going to be down while there is an expected increase at the sixth-grade level. And because the district tries to maintain classroom sizes of 21 to 24 students, a change of 26 or 27 students to one grade level, either up or down, means maneuvering a teacher, or two, is necessary.

“In a lot of districts, they have a K-to-5 building and any moves within the same building is a change of assignment, and we’re making six of those this year,” he said. “But because we have a prekindergarten, a kindergarten, a first/second grade, a third/fourth grade and a fifth/sixth grade setup, we have to transfer teachers between buildings. We don’t maintain the same enrollment from grade to grade each year, and with those changes in enrollment, sometimes it forces us to make personnel changes in one building or another.”

Another factor deals with the special education requirements set forth by the state. The Stafford district, in which some 20 percent of its student population is special education, is set up to include special education students with regular students as much as possible, and that requires certified special education teachers to be teamed up in classrooms with non-special education teachers.

Depending on other aforementioned factors – retirements, voluntary transfers and such – a disparity in the number of special education teachers required at a certain grade level or in another building within the district may arise, also forcing the possibility of an involuntary transfer or change of assignment. Amid the transfer maneuvers in May, 12 of those involving special education personnel were shifts in assignment within the same building or transfers to a different grade in another building.

“Sometimes, when we have a certain number of students, depending on the type of program, we have to make sure we’re abiding by the compliance code,” Chidiac said. “And with that come different openings or closures of positions. We’re trying our best to have the least restrictive learning environment for our special education students, and we’re very proactive in providing an inclusive environment for them in our district, so we have to maintain certain parameters with our co-teaching model to do that effectively.”

Once all the factors are considered, it comes down to the final element in implementing the changes – who gets moved. During the May 11 meeting, Chidiac stated multiple times that the process of deciding who to move started in January, when he asked district administrators and building principals to start providing feedback on how best to meet the anticipated needs of the district for 2017-18.

“Principals are asked to submit recommendations, and I also look to some of our central administrators to give me feedback on who we might move and how to maneuver them,” he said. “And then we look at the qualifications, certifications, experiences, skill set and knowledge, as well as their personalities, to figure out who will best serve the district in certain roles. All our teachers are outstanding. But when we’re talking about who to move, it really all comes down to who we believe can benefit the students elsewhere in the district.”

As for the two building administrators being shifted – Bill Wilkinson from the Intermediate School to the Oxycocus School and Stephanie Bush from Oxycocus to Intermediate – Chidiac pointed to each individual’s experience in various areas as big factors. With Bush, her experience in special education will be better utilized at the Intermediate School, and Wilkinson’s responsibilities as data assessment manager, which is responsible for PARCC testing analysis, make it sensible to have him in the same building with central administration staff.

The bottom line: Chidiac and the board of education believe the best interest of the students is the central factor in any decisions they make in tandem. But Chidiac also knows that, even as the head coach of the team, he’s prone to making an error here and there, and he’s not opposed to the possibility of, at some point down the line, reverting on one of the decisions he’s made with regard to a transfer.

“We’re going to continue to assess how things are going throughout the district,” he said. “We have great professionals in our district, and I have the utmost confidence in all of them to do the best they can for the students they serve. I’d love to see every one of the moves we just made to be successful, because we believe this is going to enhance our district. But if something along the way occurs, and I realize that somebody on this list of transfers isn’t really suited for the position they’re in now, I’ll consider moving that person to another position, or back to the one they were in. I’m always going to be open-minded to that.”

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