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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Parents, Teachers and Students Plead Against Cuts at Burlington School Board Meeting

Posted By on Wed, Mar 26, 2014 at 5:55 AM

click to enlarge Burlington High School students confer ahead of a school board meeting to discuss potential budget cuts. - ALICIA FREESE
  • Alicia Freese
  • Burlington High School students confer ahead of a school board meeting to discuss potential budget cuts.
The Burlington School Board meeting on Tuesday began with an announcement about how to evacuate the building. And no wonder: Students, parents and teachers flooded the meeting to caution the board against budget cuts — in particular, those that would eliminate teachers.

In reference to the high school cafeteria's fire code restrictions, one school official joked, “If anyone asks, we have under 500 people. We aren’t counting.”

The rest of the night, however, entailed a lot of counting. A long procession of teachers — several on the verge of tears — came before the school board, each emptying the contents of a plastic bag on the table next to them. These were the teachers, generally in their first or second year, whose jobs are in jeopardy; their names have landed on the “reduction in force” (RIF) list, which identifies 48 positions that could be cut. The teachers had brought wooden blocks — one for each child they teach — to demonstrate how many youngsters would be impacted by their absence.

“Cutting even one of these teachers will be damaging,” said Megan Fitzpatrick, a second grade teacher at the J.J. Flynn Elementary School. “Cutting dozens will be devastating.”

The board hasn’t made any decisions about staffing cuts yet, and it doesn’t plan to until after six new board members take their seats next week. In addition to the RIF list, Superintendent Jeanne Collins has supplied members with a number of suggestions for scaling back programs to save money after voters on Town Meeting Day rejected a $67 million budget that would have raised taxes by nearly 10 percent.

Among the potential reductions is a proposal to reduce kindergarten classes from full days to half days. “The day is barely long enough now,” Suzy Tenenbaum, who teaches kindergarten at Flynn, told the board.

Collins put forward three options for reducing the proposed Fiscal Year 2015 budget. The first, which she’s endorsed, would cut $857,000 from the budget voters rejected in March. The other two would reduce it by $1,501,000 and $4,124,000, respectively. These options are outlined in the school board agenda here.  

Some people asked the board to hold off on cuts entirely, and put the same budget that was struck down before voters a second time. On Town Meeting Day, 4,118 Burlington residents voted against the $67 million budget , while 3,424 voted for it. That ratio was not reflected in the turnout on Tuesday; only a handful of people spoke out in favor of budget reductions.

Dave Maher urged the school board not to overlook that vote tally. "The thing the school board needs to keep in mind is that for every four people here who support going back to the voters with the same budget that was rejected, there's five, 10, 15 out there who are going to vote against it." Putting an identical budget forth, Meyer said, "would be an insult.

For the most part, teachers at Monday's meeting kept their remarks brief, allowing students and parents to make the case for preserving their jobs. 

Burlington High School students, some with printed-out speeches, others reading from their smartphones, urged board members to take their teachers’ positions off the chopping block. Anthony Miles, a senior at BHS, said his history teacher, Jessica Little-Hayes, “had an incredible impact on me. She was able to connect with me on a personal level, which rarely happens.” Miles said he also credits her letter of reference with helping him get into his top choice of colleges.

Elementary school students also turned out. Some of them sprawled out on the floor, coloring signs with their school’s name. One read, “Let kids get good education.”

The Integrated Arts Academy (IAA), one of the city’s two magnet schools, had an especially large presence at the board meeting. The magnet school coordinator, the IAA “arts coach,” and a handful of other teacher positions are on the RIF list.

School community members have also been circulating an open letter to the city council, the school board, the superintendent, Gov. Peter Shumlin and Mayor Miro Weinberger. “The simple truth,” it states, “is that these cuts will nearly destroy the Herculean efforts of many, the tax-based investments made by Burlington residents over the last 5 years, and a commitment made via due process by the Burlington community to create, fortify and support the success of two magnet schools.”

The meeting Tuesday also served as a call to arms for those who want the school board to bring a budget back to voters instead of defaulting to the current year's spending plan (which would still carry an 8 percent tax hike). Christopher Hood, a member of the Burlington Friends of Education, which advocates for passing the school budget each year, said the group will be doubling down on its efforts this time around. Other parents volunteered to stand outside grocery stores with flyers, or go door-to-door to convince neighbors to vote yes on the budget. 

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Alicia Freese

Alicia Freese

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Alicia Freese is a Seven Days staff writer.

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