SOUTHINGTON — The Board of Education voted along party lines to adopt its revised budget on Thursday, which will cut six sixth-grade teaching positions, three between DePaolo and Kennedy middle schools.
Despite pleas from a coalition of sixth-grade teachers who showed up to advocate retaining the positions for the benefit of the students, the board opted to move ahead with the adoption.
The vote had been tabled from the last meeting in late May, a motion made by Democratic board member Zaya Oshana, in hopes approval of the state’s budget on June 7 would give the district enough of a windfall to retain the positions. While the district did receive addition funding, it was not as much as administrators had hoped.
With the budget slashed by the Board of Finance, the district had to find ways to account for $1,550,231 from its budget. The six-position reduction was one of those measures, with administrators seeing it as a last resort because they couldn’t find any other viable alternatives for cuts.
“The problem I’ve had, and I’ve had a problem from the beginning, is that we were presented with a budget from the superintendent … and before it even went to the Board of Finance, this board cut it. We cut our own budget, I’ve never seen us cut our own budget before,” Oshana said. “It was $622,000 roughly of cuts before we sent it to the finance board. That money, don’t know if it would have stayed in, don’t know if finance would have cut us that amount, they cut us some more. That would have been enough to keep these teachers in place. In theory, we cut teachers, we cut school safety, and we cut school security before we sent the budget to finance. And that’s devastating.”
Democratic members Terri Carmody and David Derynoski also voted against the approval of the revised budget. It has been a matter of contention between both parties. Democrat members also voted against the budget when the Republicans on the board proposed cuts earlier this year to safety improvement projects after it was determined that the $111 million budget was too high. At the time, they did not believe they were properly consulted about the changes or feel there was enough time to determine what impact the cuts would have on the district.
The cuts made at Thursday’s meeting will not result in layoffs but consolidate existing teaching roles in the sixth-grade class. The board determined this was an acceptable alternative, since the sixth-grade class is poised to shrink over the next several years, before a sharp projected increase five or more years out. By then administrators hope to have added the positions back into the budget.
However, the teachers who appeared at the meeting to advocate for the preservation of the positions stated that the impact on students transitioning from elementary to middle school would be detrimental to their learning experience. The teaching positions that would be consolidated would be from the ‘6C’ block, which is a group of students who may have more difficulties learning or have social anxiety, and who benefit from smaller class sizes.
Class sizes in the sixth grade are expected to go from 16-18 students on average into the mid-twenties, which puts them on a more consistent level with other class sizes in the district. Though as a consequence, as administrators have warned, this would mean less individualized attention for students and a higher workload for existing teachers.
“The impact this will have on our teachers is not without cost. Our impacted teachers are paying for it. The added stress in an occupation that only seems to be becoming more stressful each year is a cost not listed on your balance sheet,” said Susan Walsh, one of the sixth-grade teachers who would be affected by the decision. “When our students need more, we’d be giving them less.”
“Having three teams at both middle schools in town has allowed teachers and counselors the ability to ease the transition for our students,” said Cristi Duprey, another sixth-grade teacher with 18 years of experience. “By taking that away you’re taking all that burden on fewer adults and adding to the already elevated stress and anxiety of 11-year-olds. And let’s just forget about the research that says smaller class sizes lead to more individualized attention, better test scores, less discipline issues, and a more positive school climate. All educators know large class sizes are not conducive to learning.”
Despite the tearful addresses by some of the teachers, the Republican majority opted to approve the standing budget as is, seeing no existing alternatives to cutting the district’s costs.
June 22 will be the school board’s final meeting until just before the start of the next school year in August. How the changes to the makeup of teachers in the sixth-grade class will affect class sizes will be unknown until next semester.