2006-02-02 / Front Page

Councilman says close Lawn school to trim town budget

By Donna K. Drago

Town Councilman Bill Kelly is challenging the School Committee to take drastic budget-cutting actions to bring into line a school budget that he calls “out of proportion” to the municipal budget.

Among Kelly’s suggestions include trimming special-education staffing at all levels. He also wants to send all students in grades 7 and 8 to classes in another school district. Ultimately, the Lawn Avenue School should be closed, he said.

Kelly proposes specifically that the School Committee cut in half the number of special education resource teachers in grades kindergarten through 6. Currently, there is one teacher for each grade level.

He suggests that the position of special education director be reduced to a half-time job and that the dean of students position be eliminated altogether. Special educators in grades 7 and 8 would be eliminated under his proposal, if the students are sent to another district to be educated.

Once the Lawn school was closed, Kelly said, there would be no further need to hire an extra principal and the total number of positions that could be trimmed under his plan would be 15 teachers.

By undertaking these measures, “the School Committee would be doing a real service to the taxpayers of Jamestown,” Kelly said.

School Committee Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser disagrees with many of Kelly’s assertions. She said there would not be any real cost savings to the town by moving the junior high off the island.

Deciding to send the junior high off island “is a decision that will have to be based on factors other than money,” Kaiser said.

With the upcoming student numbers, the fifthand sixthgrade classes would not fit into the Melrose school “at this time,” and there would only be a reduction of 10, not 15 teachers as Kelly suggested, Kaiser said.

By cutting 10 teachers, Kaiser estimated a savings of between $600,000 and $750,000 in salaries and benefits, but per-pupil tuition, at about $10,000 for 80 to 85 junior high students, would amount to an expenditure of $800,000 to $850,000.

“The numbers just don’t add up if you can’t close the Lawn school,” Kaiser said.

At the first of several school budget hearings, which will begin tonight, the topic of special education funding and staffing will be discussed. Kaiser said the school board asked S p e c i a E d u c a t i o n Director Beth Pinto to “explain and justify” all current special education positions in the school.

Kaiser noted that the school board has entered into talks with the town of Narragansett and is looking into several areas of programming that may be shared between the towns. Kaiser said the question of a parttime special education director is “not under consideration for next year.”

Kelly said he would like to see his proposals considered in the current round of school budget talks, which are happening during February, and noted that the schools’ gradual and reasonable approach to making staff cuts “is not working” because the disproportionate school budget is the “principal reason” that the town cannot afford to make critical improvements to its infrastructure.

Kaiser said the school board plans to continue its “gradual and purposeful” classroom cuts this year in response to the declining enrollment. She added that the school board is now laying the groundwork for administrative restructuring measures that she expects to be implemented within the next two years.

Kelly said he did not expect his proposed cuts to be popular. “I expect people will want to shoot at me,” he said.

Those who would be the loudest opponents to his ideas would be “the teachers’ union and some parents,” Kelly said. “But, I’m willing to deal with that.”

Kelly cited the small numbers of students in each Jamestown classroom as being among the lowest in the state, but asked rhetorically if the small class sizes equated to the highest reading scores in the state. “Does Jamestown rank number one in standardized math scores across the state?”

To both questions, Kelly answered himself: “No.”

“We continue to function under the misconception that the only answer to educational excellence is reducing the number of students in the classroom,” Kelly said. “This has not produced the desired result,” he added.

Kelly wants the school board to continue the newly-initiated talks with the town of Narragansett “or other school districts.” He also wants to “enroll our existing seventhand eighthgraders in their system.” He said by doing so the town will offer Jamestown junior high students a broader based curriculum, a variety of levels for students in the various subjects, expanded extracurricular activities, cost sharing efforts, more options for participation in after-school sports, and “an overall broader based educational experience that we cannot offer in Jamestown” because of limited resources.

He suggested that in some cases Jamestown’s grade 9 students “actually have to play catch-up” to match the skills of their North Kingstown peers.

Kaiser noted that new information received by Superintendent Sipala suggests otherwise.

In conversations with department heads and guidance counselors at the high school, Sipala learned that Jamestown students do as well as or better in Spanish than their North Kingstown peers, and in math, “students hold their own” and perform as well as or “in some cases slightly better” than NK students.

That “math is considered anecdotally a weak area” has been proven to be untrue by this new data that comes from School Max, a new computerized student reporting system.

Kelly said that he wished the school panel had taken up the matter of closing the Lawn Avenue School “two or three years ago,” at a time when the site could have been a strong contender for a new town hall.

“But it’s too late in the process” to consider that as an option, Kelly said.

He speculated that the building could be leased out “to a charter school” or for another purpose that could make it “an asset for the whole community.”

Superintendent Sipala was asked to comment for this article, but she said that she preferred to do so within the context of the school budget sessions.

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