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Program cuts at Brett School alarm residents and students

January 28, 2010
TAMWORTH — About 50 residents packed K.A. Brett School cafeteria on Tuesday to discuss concerns about the school board's proposed operating budget, which would eliminate or reduce several popular classes while adding full day kindergarten.

Tuesday night's discussion was an informal budget forum. A formal budget hearing will be held next month. The proposed budget would eliminate the gifted and talented program (TAG) along with an alternative education program (AEP) for struggling students. All special classes would be reduced from five days per week to three days per week. Special classes are music, physical education, library/media, guidance, and art.

The art teacher and library/media teachers' positions would be reduced to 60 percent of full time. The physical education teacher's job would be expanded to include two days per week of state mandated health class. The music teacher would have two additional days set aside for band and chorus. Time for each class may also be reduced. The exact schedule will be made next year when a new principal takes over for Noel DeSousa.

In total, the cuts reduce the proposed operating budget by 2.9 percent or about $200,000. Superintendent Jay McIntire said school board built this budget "from the ground up" and they believe it provides the students with what they need at a cost that taxpayers can bear — last year voters slashed $250,000 from the operating budget at the last minute. This proposed budget was also based on input from a committee that studied how five similar school districts in the region operate.

School Board member John Cleveland noted the school's population has been in a steady decline. This year's population is 207 students, which is down 17 percent over the past five years and down 30 percent over the past 11 years.

"What was proposed is the administration and the school board's best judgment," said School Board Chair Laura Pike. "It's within the community's ability to say we want more and are willing to pay for that. Last year, the message we got is we want less (than proposed) and we're not willing to pay for anymore."

Still, residents of all ages seemed skeptical of the school board's claim that this budget was a good deal for the community and the students.

"Nobody likes budget cuts, so as soon as you can, stop cutting it," said seventh grader Thomas Chant who was among several students who came to support TAG.

Parent Sarah Wright was also a vocal critic of the decision to cut the TAG program. She frequently blasted out comments and questions about that from the back of the room.

Senior Peg Custer said she was pleased when the school started the TAG in the early 1990s and is concerned about the cut.

"What are we going to do with these children," she asked.

McIntire responded to concerns about cuts by saying the board wasn't just making reductions. It's also adding full day kindergarten, something most of the school districts in the United States already offer. Officials believe having full day kindergarten would help prepare students for their next 12 years and would reduce the dropout rate. It would add nearly $60,000 to the budget.

"Making a budget isn't about cutting, it's about building," said McIntire.

But several mothers said they would prefer the option of having half day and full day kindergarten, so they can choose to spend more time with their children if they wish. Residents also worried that full day kindergarten would be too academic.

But McIntire said full day kindergarten would actually offer students more play and nap time than they have at half day.

Resident Lori Palmer wanted to know how many students would be impacted if TAG and AEP were cut and how much money the eliminations would save. Palmer said she was in support of keeping programs like TAG.

School officials said TAG serves 34 students and costs about $69,000. AEP serves 15 students and costs about $74,000. McIntire added, that the TAG program is unusual because it serves nearly 20 percent of the school's population and only covers English. Most gifted and talented programs serve a much smaller percentage of students but offer more subjects.

Other people wanted to know why the school district was planning to cut the TAG teacher's job was keeping a behavioral specialist on board.

DeSousa replied the specialist's position is needed because there is a large population of students who have "intense" behavior issues. This year, the specialist is handling between 16 and 20 students. DeSousa also said 42 percent of the student body lives at or below the poverty line. There is a strong correlation between these numbers because struggling families tend to have anxiety and frustrations that translate as behavior problems in school. In addition, the behavior specialist position allows the school to keep students who would otherwise need to be transferred out of district at higher cost. Plus, the position has allowed the school to receive students from other school districts who were placed in Tamworth — that brings in income.

Impacted teachers tried to rally support for their jobs. TAG teacher of nine years, Marcia McKenna, said her class means a lot to students because it gives them a place for where they aren't alienated for being smart. TAG also inspires its students to think about the world beyond Tamworth, said McKenna.

"To say it's a reading program is a disservice," she said.

John Perkins the media/library teacher said his job would be reduced to just circulating books in the library if the cuts go through.

Art teacher Melanie McBrian said art benefit children in multiple ways and teaches them how to be better thinkers.

Voters have two other chances to weigh in on the budget on Wednesday, Feb. 3. There will be a school board meeting at 5:30 p.m. at the K.A. Brett School, which will be followed by the school district budget hearing at 7 p.m.

Klumb Environmenta;
Varney Smith
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