Anger over bud­get cuts dom­i­nates ed­u­ca­tion fo­rum

Newark Post - - LOCAL NEWS - By JOSH SHANNON jshan­non@ches­pub.com

Frus­tra­tion over school bud­get cuts bub­bled over at an ed­u­ca­tion fo­rum at Ne­wark High School on Mon­day night.

Mod­er­ated by State Rep. Paul Baum­bach, the event brought to­gether five peo­ple who all af­fect ed­u­ca­tion in Ne­wark but rarely share a stage: Delaware Sec­re­tary of Ed­u­ca­tion Su­san Bunting, State Sen. Dave Sokola, Christina Board Pres­i­dent El­iz­a­beth Paige, Christina Su­per­in­ten­dent Richard Gregg and Ne­wark Char­ter School Direc­tor Greg Meece.

Baum­bach asked each pan­elist pre-se­lected ques­tions that he said came from par­ents, stu­dents and other stake­hold­ers. How­ever, an hour into the event, many at­ten­dees be­gan in­ter­rupt­ing the speak­ers to ex­press anger over bud­get cuts and their frus­tra­tion that they weren’t pro­vided a for­mal op­por­tu­nity to voice their con­cerns dur­ing the event.

If the state leg­is­la­ture ap­proves Gov. John Car­ney’s pro­posal at the end of June, Christina will lose ap­prox­i­mately $6 mil­lion but will have a one-time chance to re­coup up to $4 mil­lion by rais­ing taxes with­out a ref­er­en­dum. How­ever, due to the tim­ing, Christina had to plan for the worst-case sce­nario and find ways to trim $6 mil­lion out of its bud­get by May 15, the district’s dead­line to in­form em­ploy­ees they are be­ing laid off. The board ul­ti­mately cut 77 ed­u­ca­tor po­si­tions, in ad­di­tion to other re­duc­tions in spend­ing.

Sev­eral par­ents in at­ten­dance Mon­day de­cried that de­ci­sion, adding that larger class sizes and a de­crease in pro­grams will harm stu­dents.

“We’re go­ing to lose a whole gen­er­a­tion,” one per­son yelled.

Paige said ask­ing stu­dents to take part in the gover­nor’s call for “shared sac­ri­fice” is not fair, and it’s not pos­si­ble to make deep cuts with­out hurt­ing kids.

“We can al­ways be more ef­fi­cient, but for the gover­nor to sug­gest that we can get ef­fi­cient enough in the face of $6 mil­lion [in cuts] to not touch per­son­nel or pro­grams is dis­re­spect­ful and disin­gen­u­ous,” she said.

Sokola noted that four decades ago, he was a teacher and was laid off dur­ing a round of bud­get cuts.

“I un­der­stand what peo­ple are go­ing through and I’m will­ing to stick my neck out,” he said. “I stand ready to fight on your be- half. It’s go­ing to be a long haul.”

Baum­bach en­cour­aged peo­ple to con­tact Car­ney and state leg­is­la­tors to urge them to find al­ter­na­tive ways of solv­ing the state’s bud­get cri­sis.

“Ex­plain that your num­ber one pri­or­ity is ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing and ex­plain you’re a sin­gle-is­sue voter,” he said.

Ear­lier in the meet­ing, the most pas­sion­ate dis­cus­sions re­volved around the long-sim­mer­ing con­flict be­tween Christina schools and char­ter schools, par­tic­u­larly Ne­wark Char­ter.

“Many area res­i­dents have iden­ti­fied a di­vide that has evolved as a re­sult of the es­tab­lish­ment and ex­pan­sion of Ne­wark Char­ter School,” Baum­bach said.

Char­ter schools are pub­licly funded but have more free­dom than district schools and are of­ten the tar­get of crit­i­cism be­cause they di­vert stu­dents and fund­ing away from tra­di­tional pub­lic schools.

Both district and char­ter of­fi­cials on the panel called for bet­ter col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the two en­ti­ties.

“We shouldn’t talk about com­pe­ti­tion be­cause when peo­ple com­pete, some­body loses,” Paige said. “Char­ter schools and district schools should col­lab­o­rate, but we should all do what’s best for the kids we have right now.”

Still, there are strong dif­fer­ences, as evidenced by a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween her and Meece at a din­ner prior to the fo­rum, she said.

“I said some things that he prob­a­bly didn’t like at din­ner, but we came away from the table with mu­tual re­spect,” Paige said. “He said some things that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, but we agreed that we could sit over a meal and have a con­ver­sa­tion.”

The state leg­is­la­ture is con­sid­er­ing a bill that would change the way char­ter schools ad­mit stu­dents. Any stu­dent in the state can ap­ply, but char­ter schools are al­lowed to ap­ply cer­tain pref­er­ences.

Ne­wark Char­ter gives pref­er­ence to those who live within a 5-mile ra­dius of the school and then ad­mis­sion is granted by lot­tery. How­ever, more peo­ple from within the ra­dius ap­ply than the school has room for, mean­ing other stu­dents don’t get a chance to com­pete for a seat.

The bill, which passed the house and is await­ing ac­tion in the se­nate, re­moves the 5-mile ra­dius pref­er­ence and in­stead al­lows char­ter schools to give pref­er­ence to stu­dents who live in the district in which the school is lo­cated.

It ex­empts non-con­tigu­ous por­tions of a district, mean­ing stu­dents in Christina’s sliver of Wilm­ing­ton would not get the pref­er­ence. Op­po­nents say that amounts to dis­crim­i­na­tion.

“I’m hav­ing a hard time not get­ting re­ally an­gry over this,” Paige said. “I per­son­ally don’t think it’s fair.”

Meece de­fended the pref­er­ence sys­tem.

“The prob­lem is sup­ply and de­mand,” he said, noting the school re­ceives 3,200 ap­pli­ca­tions for less than 200 seats each year. “Ninety per­cent of those who live in Ne­wark and the sur­round­ing com­mu­nity don’t get in, and many of them con­sider that un­fair, too.”

He said the pref­er­ence is no dif­fer­ent than Christina’s school choice pol­icy, which gives pref­er­ence to stu­dents re­sid­ing in a school’s feeder pat­tern.

Sokola, one of the bill’s spon­sors, noted that Christina is the only district in the state that has non-con­tigu­ous por­tions.

“It seems ab­surd to im­pose a non-con­tigu­ous re­quire­ment on an­other en­tity just be­cause it’s on Christina,” he said. “We should fix the prob­lem in Christina.”

Gregg called for an end to all pref­er­ences in char­ter school ad­mis­sions.

“It’s sim­ple for me. I think there should be no re­stric­tions on ap­pli­ca­tions. They’re pub­lic schools,” he said. “Throw them in the lot­tery and let’s see who gets pulled out.”

NE­WARK POST PHOTO BY JOSH SHANNON

Greg Meece, Su­san Bunting, David Sokola, El­iz­a­beth Paige and Richard Gregg par­tic­i­pate in an ed­u­ca­tion fo­rum at Ne­wark High School on Mon­day.

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