2006-02-23 / Front Page

School Committee divided on support for $10.8 million budget

By Sam Bari

At its heavily attended Feb. 16 meeting, the School Committee voted 3-2 to approve the $10,838,980 budget presented by Superintendent Katherine Sipala for fiscal 2006/07.

Passionate speeches by concerned parents and citizens opened and closed the meeting during the two periods of open forum. Before voting, each committee member was given an opportunity to speak.

Committee member Jim Filkins said: “The issue is not about educating children, but how we fund their education and take the burden away from the property tax. I do not see how the budget can be reduced without reducing services.”

Fellow committee member Julie Kallfelz said that she “feels the budget is responsible despite the challenges of reduced enrollment. The committee has a commitment as well as an obligation to support special education.”

“I am comfortable with the budget,” committee member Julia Held said. “We have to face the realities of change of demographics. The budget is financially responsible,” she noted.

Committee Member William “Bucky” Brennan felt differently. “Our philosophies differ. It’s about looking at special education the same as general education. I see areas where cuts can be made, but that’s what administrators do. I do not support this budget. I believe we need a full-time principal (at the Lawn Avenue School), a part-time superintendent, and we should eliminate the dean of students. I support the students and the committee, but not the budget.”

An unidentified woman in the audience said that she has lived in Jamestown for over 40 years and she feels that general education students have been short-changed for years in favor of special education.

School Committee Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser said that she also had philosophical differences. “Special education is a sacred cow that is difficult to discuss. We’re not attacking (special ed). We want to discuss and understand. I agree with Mr. Brennan as well as Julie Kallfelz, but I am struggling because of the lack of accommodation for the future,” Kaiser said. “We must look at it from a zero-based budget. Philosophically, I cannot support the budget, but I will support the majority decision,” she added.

“The budget plan is the best I can do with the numbers I have now,” Sipala said. Military and housing can make a difference. We must be flexible, and we will be, when further data is available,” she continued.

In a prepared statement made after the meeting Sipala said: “The actual budget hearings for 2006/07 were relatively short in duration and not as difficult as in some other years, probably due to the intense discussions at the School Committee workshops of the fall focused on restructuring, reorganization, and shared services. I don’t want that interpreted to mean that reductions are easy, because they are not. The loss of a grade 7 teacher cannot be underestimated, but this reduction matches that of the past four years, when the loss of one class per year has resulted in the reorganization of the teaching arrangement in the next class.

“One comment relative to the hearings which I would like to offer would be that at times during the hearings, it might have sounded to an outsider that the special education budget was at risk during these hearings, which it never was. The budget I presented did not recommend any changes in the special education program, in spite of the comments raised by citizens in the audience. As always, I appreciate the support of the Jamestown School Committee in their thoughtful analysis of the needs of the school department, balanced against our responsibility to deliver a reasonable budget to the townspeople. I am confident about our upcoming hearings before the Town Council because I will be able to proudly and clearly explain our requests, which continue to support all students” Sipala said.

In other business, Sipala addressed a letter from a concerned parent about an article in the Jamestown Press quoting North Kingstown High School Principal Gerry Foley as saying that some advanced placement courses were eliminated from the school curriculum due to lack of interest. The writer was concerned that the courses were permanently eliminated from the curriculum, which was not the case, Sipala pointed out. The courses were just eliminated for that year due to lack of enrollment. The classes will be offered again the following year. Despite the elimination of a few classes, often, alternative classes are offered, she continued to explain.

After the second reading of the policy on family vacations, Maureen McGuirl, a teacher, suggested that the School Committee ask Director of Pupil Services Beth Pinto to amend the second draft of the policy to include a sentence advising parents that completion of assignments missed while on vacation is not a substitute for classroom instruction. After some discussion, the committee agreed to the revision.

The Melrose School Improvement Team heard reports by three subcommittees. The communications committee will send a letter to parents this summer informing them of changes in the math curriculum. The Academics Committee discussed the possibility of making foreign language audiotapes available for class use in an audio lab in the library. The Service Learning Committee discussed a food drive that will actively involve students in the planning, implementation process.

The Lawn School Improvement Team discussed the reduction in seventh grade from four instructional groups to three. After hearing a presentation by Michaela Onosco, team members agreed that they do not support a reduction of Spanish to enable the seventh grade to retain four teachers. Several members expressed concern about student anxiety caused by the possible closing of Lawn Avenue School. Kaiser reiterated that the committee considers closing the school a “last” option.

There will be a short business meeting on Monday, Feb. 27, at 7 p.m. to discuss a special education legislative resolution and to vote on letters of non-renewal. The next work session of the Jamestown School Committee will be on Thursday, March 2. The next business meeting will be on March 16. All meetings will be held at 7 p.m. in the Lawn Avenue School library.

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