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