2009-12-31 / News

Budget tops school concerns in rough economic year

By Eileen M. Daly

There is little doubt that 2009 will be remembered as a school year dominated by budget concerns and administrative changes, but Jamestown’s students and teachers provided many bright spots in an otherwise bleak year.

Tough budget talk was on the table right at the outset of the year. At its Jan. 22 meeting, School Committee members were already foretelling a difficult financial year. The budget process, described as “always a challenging procedure,” was made even more difficult by recent economic conditions, committee members said at the time.

Superintendent Marcia Lukon presented a preliminary budget at that meeting and the committee commended the administrative team on drafting such a lean budget while still preserving services. Nonetheless, committee members discussed the need for a long-term plan to adjust to the almost certain decrease in state funding.

Budget concerns continued to dominate as the year progressed, as a shaky economy caused belts to tighten across the country. Governor Donald Carcieri cut state aid to schools and replaced it with stimulus fund monies that came with restrictions attached.

By December, Carcieri’s proposed mid-year cuts to education were described by many as “devastating” to education in Rhode Island.

Fortunately, the Jamestown School Committee and the administrative team had already worked toward weathering the fiscal storm and committee Chair Cathy Kaiser remained optimistic.

“In Jamestown, we are not going to sit back to see what happens in two years when the stimulus money dries up,” she said. “We recognize the need to use this time to achieve increased efficiencies within our schools, working with our unions, and in state and regional collaborations in order to position ourselves to emerge from the recession in a stronger position — both financially and academically.”

Other topics that made headlines in 2009 were New England Common Assessment Program test scores and administrative changes at North Kingstown High School.

According to Lukon, Jamestown students continued to score well on the NECAP test.

“This is the third year that the NECAP tests have been given,” Lukon said, “so we are beginning to be able to track the progress of our students. Overall, scores are improving, with more children scoring in the levels of proficient and proficient with distinction.”

Lukon was particularly pleased with the level of improvement in student writing scores, calling them “scores to celebrate.” Reading and math scores have also improved, but at a more moderate level, she said.

In contrast to island schools, North Kingstown High School saw a decrease in performance on the NECAP assessment, along with a failure to reach the mandate of testing at least 95% of its students, one of the factors cited by North Kingstown Superintendent Phil Thornton in recommending against the renewal of high school Principal Gerald F. Foley’s contract

for 2010. The North Kingstown School Committee voted 4-3 on Nov. 24 to accept Thornton’s recommendation of non-renewal. Foley responded by sending an e-mail the following day to teachers and parents titled, “Round Two,” in which he vowed to “come after them” in order to retain his position. The superintendent immediately suspended Foley, who remains on suspension to date.

However, Foley was not the first administrator to come under fire at the high school in 2009. Athletic Director Keith Kenyon retired in August after a prolonged battle with the school committee.

Kenyon and Foley’s difficulties began with an audit report conducted by Cayer, Caccia, LLP, in which “questionable activity” was found in relation to the student activities account used by Kenyon and overseen by Foley. Both Kenyon and Foley denied any wrongdoing and the report did not find any criminal concerns. Nonetheless, Kenyon soon resigned, while Foley continues to battle to retain his position.

The year was not without bright spots, however. Two exceptional teachers were awarded prestigious national awards. High school science teacher and Jamestown resident James Simmons was awarded the Outstanding Biology Teacher Award by the National Association of Biology Teachers and fourth-grade science teacher Charlene Tuttle won the Amgen Award for Science Teaching Excellence in Rhode Island.

Simmons teaches biology at North Kingstown High School, as well as a popular elective course in horticulture. Enthusiastic about his profession, Simmons sees education as singularly important and ignorance as “the single greatest threat to our existence.” In his opinion, education can help to alleviate this threat.

“Ignorance has created and continues to create many of the problems that we face in every aspect of our lives. Education is the only true elixir that has the potential to cure all that ails our society,” he said.

Tuttle received her award during a surprise ceremony at Melrose School in March. The Amgen Award for Science Teaching Excellence is given to only 34 teachers nationwide and to four in Rhode Island. Melrose Principal Carole Melucci said that everyone was thrilled about the award and that it was “well deserved.”

“She is an amazing teacher,” Melucci said.

Students in Jamestown also garnered a number of awards in 2009. Among these were: High school senior Ryan Morris was awarded the Gatorade Player of the Year Award. The award is given annually to the best baseball player in Rhode Island. Gatorade award winners must show both outstanding athletic excellence, as well as high standards of academic achievement and display exemplary personal character on and off the field.

Former Lawn Avenue School eighth-grader John Ragland won the Music Educator’s National Conference Eastern Division Young Composer’s Contest with “Spring Forth,” an original composition for piano. The winning composition was played by Sam Hollister, a fellow Lawn Avenue student, as part of the MENC’s Young Composer’s Concert held at the Rhode Island Convention Center.

Rocky Hill School’s Upper School Fall Athletic Awards included Anthea Weiel, a girls’ varsity field hockey player, who received the Helen Waterman Sportsmanship Award; Tyler Thran, a junior varsity soccer player, who received the MVP Award; and Vaughn Gooding, a boys’ cross country team member, who received the Coach’s Rookie of the Year Award.

In October, school officials looked toward the future with the announcement of a $200,000 NASA appropriation for a Science and Math Scholars program at Lawn Avenue School.

The appropriation, awarded to the Jamestown Education Foundation, will allow students in grades 6 through 8 to gain “field experience” by partnering with local businesses, organizations and universities. The school department will be awarded an aquaculture tank, a weather station, a green house, solar panels and a mobile computer lab as part of the grant.

Mary Hall Keen, a JEF board member, praised the appropriation and said it would help bridge the gap between where Jamestown students currently stand and where they need to go to become more proficient in math and science.

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