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Published: Monday, 5/17/2010

Sylvania school leaders delay action to eliminate deficit

BLADE STAFF

After hearing more than an hour of impassioned pleas to reconsider nearly $4 million in proposed spending cuts for the upcoming school year, the Sylvania Board of Education last night deferred action on the budget for one week.

“We have heard things here that are concerning, and we need to take a look at,” Jim Nusbaum, the board's president, said as he announced withdrawal of the lone action item on the meeting's agenda.

The board had before it a list, slightly revised from one discussed a week earlier, that outlined $3,912,000 in budget cuts to plug a widening deficit forecast for the 2010-11 school year, a gap that school officials previously said was caused by declining property tax revenue.

“We are facing a financial crisis, that's a fact,” Mr. Nusbaum said.

The proposal included cutting the full-time equivalent of 49 staff positions — a mixture of teachers, aides, and support staff — for a total saving of about $2.56 million, while the rest would be cut from building and materials budgets and supplemental contracts.

Exactly how many of those reductions would require layoffs was unspecified, once all retirements or other resignations at the school year's end are known, but many less-experienced teachers had received layoff notices as a procedural step earlier this month.

The postponement of action stole at least some of the thunder from remarks Chris Albright, president of the Sylvania Education Association, made to the board about both the budget and on-going contract negotiations between the district and its teachers' union.

But he still used the opportunity to describe a strained labor-relations climate in the district, where teachers have been working under the terms of an expired contract since Jan. 1. Scores of teachers wearing blue SEA T-shirts stood out among about 200 people who attended the meeting.

“We're going through some very difficult negotiating sessions. Since October, things have not gone well,” Mr. Albright said.

In particular, he said, remarks made during the public-comment period that preceded Mr. Nusbaum's announcement comprised a mixture of requests to keep programs or staff threatened by the cuts and complaints about how potentially affected staff were notified of their possible layoffs.

The endangered special-needs, preschool program at Northview High School was the subject of several rescue pleas, including from Beth Emerson, a special-education teacher who works with high-schoolers whose five-year-old son is in the preschool.

“At his third birthday, my son couldn't even say ‘Mom.' Now he can tell us what he wants and feels. He doesn't live in a world of frustration any more,” Mrs. Emerson said.

And Elisa Huss-Hage, the parent of a Northview sophomore, said cutting that particular program would also compromise the educations received by the district's early childhood education students, who use the preschool as a teaching lab.

“We acknowledge that the district is facing a difficult financial climate,” said Janet Hildebrandt, a teacher at Highland Elementary. “But do you really have a grasp on the ramifications of eliminating these proposed positions?”

At the meeting's outset, Superintendent of Schools Brad Rieger defended district administrators' plan to proceed with introducing full-day kindergarten during the upcoming school year even as faculty in other teaching areas are at risk of layoff.

Not only is full-day kindergarten educationally beneficial for children, he said, the school district made a commitment to provide it when it campaigned for a construction bond levy that district voters approved two years ago.

But Chris Thomas, a veteran fifth-grade teacher at Central Elementary, said that along with teaching her students to honor their word, she also preaches flexibility.

“Sometimes we need to make changes to our commitments because the situations change,” Ms. Thomas said. On all-day kindergarten, she said, “We need to be flexible.”

Sarah Petersen, a third-year high school psychology teacher whose job is on the line, was more blunt.

The all-day kindergarten commitment, she said, “is crap. You have an obligation to provide the best education to every single student in this community.”

Other teachers, meanwhile, described colleagues being pulled out of their rooms at the start of a class day to be given layoff notices, and seniority lists that were riddled with errors.

One particularly testy exchange occurred when Jack Schroeder, the parent of another special-needs preschooler, likened what he considers “deliberate misstatements” and a “lack of empathy” from district leaders to the propaganda tactics of Nazi Germany.

“As a member of the Jewish community in Sylvania, I'm a little offended by your analogy,” Mr. Nusbaum said.



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