The Woonsocket School Committee made the necessary $1.8 million in cuts to balance their budget for FY2012 last night.
They did it by cutting 10 high school teachers and changing the block schedule to a six-period day. They cut four middle school teachers, eliminated two LEAs (who help with special education needs,) cut five general education/ special education teaching assistants, cut five kindergarten teaching assistants, closed Second Avenue School and Social Street School, ordered a mandatory building shutdown during Christmas and lastly, cut one assistant principal at the middle schools.
About 200 Woonsocket residents, teachers and students gathered inside the cafeteria at on Thursday evening to air their concerns about the school budget.
They came out to protect their extracurricular activities, their performance arts, their ROTC program, their principals, their teaching assistants and their quality of education.
“Next year there will be no musical and no benefit if the six period day goes through, and that’s a shame,” said Jennifer Maiello, instructor of dance and theatre at Woonsocket High School.
Lt. Colonel Dan Richard who runs the Air Force ROTC program at WHS said that the six period day may end his program. Kevin Plouffe, the director of the band, said many of his students may have to drop out if band was moved to an after-school program. Currently both programs are offered as electives in the block schedule.
“We cannot create a musical caste system where only the children of the affluent are able to get a musical education,” said Plouffe.
Other students and teachers argued that they deserved the same education as the surrounding suburban communities. Everyone in the room agreed that they deserved it. They had come to speak their mind and wanted answers and decisions.
The School Committee sat on the stage and listened to them with looks of chagrin, stuck between the yearn to provide a competitive education with the pressing need to cut $1.8 million to balance the budget.
“I should not be here defending my own right to a quality education,” said one Woonsocket High School student.
After each of the 24 speakers were finished they returned to their seat with a chorus of applause.
But despite all the support for a block schedule the school committee made the tough decision to move to a six period per day schedule because of the $726,057 it would save.
Through it all the state was blamed.
Committee member Anita McGuire Forcier told students who brought signs that read “Don’t budget my future,” “This is discrimination!” and “We want blocks, not periods” that they need to take them to the state house.
John Ward, the city council president, spoke at the podium and said the city would receive an extra $1.78 million if the state’s teacher pension system was funded properly. He noted the stress section 8 housing has put on the city and how state legislators reworked the funding formula to benefit suburban communities. He told the crowd that there’s $10 million in that formula that Woonsocket should be getting, but is not.
"Our problem may be that we don't have enough money to give the students the education they deserve," said Ward, "but that comes from the problem the state has and they have dropped that burden on you."
The school committee announced that they had filed a lawsuit alleging improper funding by the state on Thursday and will be releasing information on that shortly.
Ward also said that he would raise taxes to provide an additional $377,597 for the school committee's budget. He said he would do it even if it means he doesn’t get re-elected. He added that he has brought up the issue with the funding formula for urban communities with Senate President Paiva Weed and will be meeting with House Speaker Gordon Fox soon to discuss it with him.
Despite Ward’s work, there were few options for the School Committee. They were legally obligated to submit a balanced budget. They swallowed their pride and passed the budget cuts detailed above 3 – 2.
The vote was as follows: Anita Forcier, Vimala Phongsavanh, and Eleanor Nadeau for the proposal; Linda Majewski and Marc Dubois against the proposal.
Editor's note: I have made two corrections to this piece. The original story incorrectly stated that Coleman Elementary was one of the schools that would be closed. Also, the name Kevin Bluff has been edited to correctly read, Kevin Plouffe.