FORT WORTH -- School counselor Donna Emerson lined up just after 5 a.m. Wednesday to secure $5,000.
Emerson was watching Tuesday night's Fort Worth school board meeting when trustees decided at the last-minute to also offer bonuses to the first 100 nonteaching, degreed professionals who notify the district that they would not be returning next year.
"I was going to retire anyway, so this is just ice cream on the cake," she said. "I do hope it saves another counselor's job."
About 30 teachers and other staffers were in line by 7 a.m. Wednesday when the district started taking early notifications. More signed up for the offer Wednesday afternoon.
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Initially, officials offered $500 as early-notification bonuses and then upped it to $1,000 to teachers. The $5,000 is now available to the first 100 degreed professional staff and the first 600 teachers who notify officials by March 23.
When Chief Financial Officer Hank Johnson told trustees that the district could avoid layoffs if all eligible employees retired this year, they looked for ways to sweeten the deal for those who were already considering the option. The sooner officials know who is not returning, the better idea they have of what cuts that will have to make, if any, officials said.
Sammy Monge, assistant superintendent of human capital management, said he was surprised so many showed early Wednesday.
"I was hoping for this because it's good for us down the road to help save other jobs," Monge said.
Teacher Nicole Alexander said the $5,000 offer worked for her. She is five months pregnant with her second child.
"It was a blessing because it was a chance for me to stay home again," she said. "That will pay for a lot of health insurance for two kids."
In another budget matter, administrators recommended keeping the pre-kindergarten program full-day, while at the same time cutting the 207 teaching assistants in those classes, which will save about $4.7 million. However, they urged schools to pay for the aides themselves through campus-controlled federal funds.
Sonia Davis, an aide at Washington Heights Elementary, urged trustees not to cut teacher's aides. She said the youngsters in the program -- generally 3 to 5 years old -- need more than one person in the classroom to help them succeed.
"When I see my kids grow and then come back and they thank me and their parents thank me every day for making an impact on their lives, it gets to me and I tell them that I'm glad that I had that impact," Davis said.
Some trustees indicated that they could support the plan if campuses can use federal money to keep the assistants.
"I don't think our classrooms can operate with 22 4-year-olds without teacher assistants," said Trustee Carlos Vasquez, a former elementary school principal.
Official Heights firing
Also at Tuesday's meeting, a former Arlington Heights assistant principal who said he was a whistle-blower was officially fired by trustees after his final hearing before the district.
Trustees voted 5-2 to accept an independent hearing examiner's findings that the board's initial move to fire Joseph Palazzolo in October be upheld. Trustee Ann Sutherland abstained and Trustee Judy Needham, who represents the Heights area, left the board meeting before the hearing.
Attorneys summed up arguments to the board that were presented in a six-day hearing last month before the independent hearing examiner. That hearing included 24 witnesses and thousands of pages of e-mails, exhibits and depositions.
Palazzolo had been on administrative leave pending the outcome of Tuesday's meeting.
He has also filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against the district.
Eva-Marie Ayala, 817-390-7700