2009-02-19 / Front Page

Islanders protest school program reductions

By Eileen M. Daly

Last Thursday's school committee meeting saw the highest attendance of the year as residents, parents, teachers and administrators gathered to protest possible program reductions due to a loss in state aid.

School Committee Chairperson Cathy Kaiser opened the meeting by explaining the process of "pink-slipping." Under Rhode Island law, school committees must notify any teacher whose job may be impacted in the following year by March 1. Kaiser pointed out that, since many factors may remain unknown by that date, including the amount of state aid that will be available, whether or not the school budget will be approved by the town, and what the impact of "bumping," (the process by which a teacher whose position is eliminated may displace a less senior teacher) will be, the number of teachers who receive pink slips is artificially high.

Kaiser stressed that the current situation is fluid due to the unknowns and that the majority of pink slips may be rescinded as information about fiscal year 2010 state aid becomes available. Kaiser also said that she has testified for years in support of a bill that would change the notification date from March to June, and that the union leadership always testifies against the bill stating that teachers need the additional time to look for new positions. "We know that receiving pink slips is bad for morale, we know that it is awful and it is our greatest hope that we will not have to implement any of these cuts," she said. Nevertheless, Kaiser said, the school committee has directed the administration to plan for the following scenarios: a 25 percent loss of state aid, a 50 percent loss of state aid and a 100 percent loss of state aid. "We have a plan in place for each of these possible outcomes. We do not want to make any of these cuts, none of them are good for kids, but we do have to consider the current financial situation."

Committee member B.J. Whitehouse emphasized his own experience with the process. "I know how much this process stinks," he said, "I've had eight pink slips in my career as a music teacher. Please understand that nobody wants to do this. We are going to work hard to make sure the kids get the same or a better education this year than they did last year."

Superintendent Marcia Lukon prefaced the reading of the names of the teachers who received pink slips by reiterating Kaiser's remarks and adding that the teachers who received them are not in any way responsible, that their work has been exemplary and that the slips are given out only as a necessity dictated by law.

After the reading of the teachers' names, most of which were in the areas of art, music, foreign language and physical education, community members spoke out in support of these programs.

Anne Ward Masterson, a mother of two special needs children, began with a plea not to cut art programs. "The art room has been a refuge for my 7-year-old son," Masterson said. "We need to value the arts. They help people become better problem solvers, to laugh and to be open minded." Like many others who spoke, Masterson said she didn't envy the school committee members' job, but that she hoped they would find a way to keep art programs in tact.

A number of parents and students spoke in support of foreign language programs. High school student Jessica Bucklin said she has recently been accepted into a global studies program at Long Island University and plans to spend her first year of study in Costa Rica. "If I hadn't started Spanish in middle school, I don't know where I'd be now," Bucklin said.

The burgeoning world market was on many community members' minds. Pediatrician Maureen Ryall, who also commiserated with the difficult job facing school committee members, said that the idea of cutting foreign language studies in middle school "horrifi ed" her. "Kids should learn languages early," she said. "In this world economy, kids are going to need to speak another language. That doesn't mean that I want to see art, music or physical education programs cut, however. Not all of our children are going to become lawyers or pediatricians." She finished by saying that, though she understands the mandates committee members are struggling with and though she doesn't know where the money is going to come from, "foreign language, art, music and physical education programs are not expendable."

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the evening came when teacher Janet Kraus spoke. With her voice breaking from emotion, Kraus pleaded with the committee to recognize the importance of art programs for children who may in some way feel disenfranchised. "In the 1950s and 60s when I was in school in Lexington with an 85 percent hearing loss, I could have gone to a school for the deaf. This was before special education and before mainstreaming and it was the arts that made it possible for me to survive. I put everything I learned then into my work with students now. I pour my heart and soul into my job. I worked very hard to get where I am and our kids are going to have to work very hard to get where they want to go. I don't just teach them, I pass that on," Kraus said.

Once everyone had a chance to speak, committee members read several letters from community members who were unable to attend, including one from local author and parent Kelly Easton, who said, "Cutting art programs is short sighted and a step backward for education."

Committee members then restated their support of all of these programs and their desire to keep them intact. Chairperson Kaiser reminded those in the audience that their concern was a bit premature. "The budget we are currently reviewing is a level services budget," Kaiser said. "We are not planning to cut any services at this time."

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