, Newburyport, MA

February 6, 2013

Parents fight to retain second-grade teachers

Proposed budget before voters to include $82,000 hike

By Angeljean Chiaramida

---- — SEABROOK — Parents Monday night rallied effectively to increase next year’s school budget by more than $80,000 in hopes of preventing teacher cuts in the second grade.

At the school district’s deliberative session, Cathy Brown handed the typed amendment to Seabrook School District Moderator Paul Kelley in a formal motion to add $82,360 back into the proposed $11,993,805 school budget to restore a second-grade teaching position that school officials had been forced to cut.

Brown said the $82,369 figure was what SAU 21’s finance manager said was needed to restore the position.

Brown’s motion, backed by a pamphlet expounding on the benefits of small class size, was supported by the scores of parents who turned out for the deliberative session. Her motion passed almost unanimously, but not before a number of parents stood up and told Seabrook’s five-member school board and school administrators just how bad an idea they believe cutting positions is.

Even Seabrook Budget Committee member Paula Wood applauded the parents’ efforts. As chairwoman of the Budget Committee, Wood agreed with school officials’ decision to cut teachers to reduce the budget. But as a resident, she said she didn’t support the move.

Erica Stocker, the mother of two Seabrook students, said she hasn’t had the heart to tell her child his teacher may have to go if the school board carries through on its plan to reduce the teaching force at the second-grade level.

“If I did, he’d be crushed,” she said. “Right now, he loves to go to school.”

School Board Chairman Bruce Casassa said the hope is that positions, not specific teachers, will be cut. Teachers have until April to sign and return their contracts or notify the district they will be leaving for whatever reason, he said. Casassa believes attrition might handle the reduction in second-grade positions, so laying off specific teachers won’t be necessary. But, he said, that won’t be known until April.

That didn’t wash with parents. Cutting the number of second-grade positions would reduce the number of classrooms at that level, they said, resulting in an increase in class size. Larger elementary school classes was not acceptable to the parents at Monday night’s meeting.

Parents told school officials that in a district that’s struggled for decades with low student achievement scores on state assessment tests, they weren’t wiling to risk their children’s education and future for $82,000.

They insisted that classrooms with 17 or 18 students, which would result with the cuts, simply isn’t in the best interest of Seabrook children and said keeping the current 14- to 15-child-per-classroom ratio was critical to student success.

One parent said her seventh-grader is doing very well, with excellent reading and math skills. But she said that wouldn’t have been the case if his first- and second-grade teacher hadn’t noticed he was struggling and gotten him the help he needed. She feared larger classroom sizes would mean a lack of that kind of individualized attention. Kids can fall through the cracks, jeopardizing their education starting in elementary school, she said.

Brown, who works in the school system, said administrators cut the number of teaching positions at the third and fourth grade last year, and the results haven’t been good.

“The class size increased and we’ve seen a difference,” Brown said. “We don’t want that to happen in the second grade, too.”

Even though parents were successful at the deliberative session, they still have two hurdles to clear before they can relax. First, parents must persuade voters to approve the budget at the polls on March 12.

Then, parents must persuade the school board to honor their wishes and not cut positions. According to state law governing school budgets and school board authority, even if voters approve the article at the polls, the school board can stymie the will of the parents and cut positions if it chooses.

Legally, school budgets are considered a “bottom-line budget,” School Board member Jon Moore said. The board has the discretion to spend or not spend money as it sees fit.

At the end of the meeting, however, there was one good sign. School Board members voted unanimously to recommend the new, higher budget figure to voters, and that note will appear on the ballot.