2010-04-15 / Front Page

Capacity crowd hears potential cuts to N.K. high school programs

By Eileen M. Daly

Parents and students turned out in force Tuesday night for a joint budget meeting of the North Kingstown Town Council and the N.K. School Committee at Davisville Middle School.

At issue were multiple suggested cuts to school programs – cuts that may affect many Jamestown students at the high school level.

Programs slated for elimination include freshman sports, ice hockey, afterschool groups and clubs, gymnastics, boys and girls lacrosse, all jazz bands, percussion ensembles, drama club and the school musical, along with library clerks and other staff reductions.

After fighting for the right to speak, Superintendent of Schools Philip Thornton repeated what has become a familiar refrain: North Kingstown schools have already undergone funding cuts that have left no “fat in the budget.”

Further reductions in state and federal monies can be expected, and without support from the town, the school department will be forced to “cut into the muscle,” and eliminate or sharply reduce school sports, arts and music programs, he said.

Thornton put the onus squarely back on the community, saying, “Ultimately, you will have to decide what kind of schools you want to have.”

Before opening the meeting to public comment, Town Council Chair Liz Dolan distanced the council from responsibility for the expected elimination of school programs.

“The Town Council has no authority to decide what programs are funded in the final school bud- get – only the authority to adopt a bottom line amount,” she said.

That argument didn’t sit well with the capacity crowd.

One after another, parents, teachers, students and community members approached the microphone, calling for support for the schools and imploring the council not to make further cuts to the overall school budget.

But School Committee member Doug Roth took the potential cuts a step further and asked the council to consider the long-term impact – particularly the effect that such cuts might have on the high school’s relationship with Jamestown students.

“Jamestown students are a vital element that becomes more and more vital every year,” he said. “We do not want to give that element a reason to leave because that would be a catastrophic, irreversible and irreplaceable loss.”

Several island students were on hand to address how program cuts would affect them personally.

Islander Rachael Perry, a student at North Kingstown High School, made a case for the importance of arts programs.

Speaking as vice president of the North Theater Group and backed by a number of the group’s other student officers, Perry spoke to the important role student groups can have not only in supporting students and providing a rich educational environment, but also in the good works such groups provide for the community.

“We have a ‘trick or treat so kids can eat,’ event where we go door to door collecting food. We raised 3,400 pounds of food,” she said.

Perry also spoke about the development of leadership skills that arts programs provide and gave as an example the work North Theater has done to promote student thespian groups statewide.

Student athletes also represented programs as diverse as hockey, lacrosse, track and swimming and talked about what those programs mean to them: The sense of belonging they provide, the opportunity these programs provide to bond with supportive adults and, in some cases, to prevent the disconnection and isolation that can lead to higher drop-out rates.

“In my work with school departments across the country, I have seen what happens when communities make these kind of cuts to programs,” said R.I. Philharmonic Executive Director David Beauchesne. “And it is really hard to get them back.”

He outlined what the community can expect to happen if these kinds of cuts are made: Decreased school attendance by 3 to 5%, decreased academic performance, decreased SAT scores by 10%, reduced ability to meet federal and state graduation requirements, increased drop-out rates, increased levels of juvenile crime, increased levels of juvenile

drug and alcohol abuse, and decreased passion for education among students.

“What you have heard here tonight, the passion that these students have expressed, that passion will be lost,” Beauchesne said.

School Committee members April Brunelle and Melvoid Benson also expressed support for extracurricular programs.

“The schools simply cannot survive any more cuts,” Brunelle said.

“It is a lot easier to build a boy and girl than to repair a man or woman,” Benson added.

As the meeting drew to a close, School Committee member Doug Roth spoke of the need for unity, as well as his unwavering support for extracurricular programs.

“I will not support cuts to these programs,” he said, adding, “It’s time for the adults to fix this problem and to get the kids out of the line of fire.”

Other school committee members attempted to speak, but Council President Dolan cut off further comment at 10:15 p.m.

“We’ve been here since 6 o’clock,” she said, “and we were supposed to end at 10.” School committee member Richard Welsch stood up at that point.

“Since this meeting began, you have attempted to stifle our ability to speak and communicate. I take exception to your running of this meeting. This is typical of your disrespect for all of us,” he said. “It is your leadership that is causing this problem. Just remember the vote is coming in November.”

Welsch’s comment was met with enthusiastic audience applause.

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