Citizens sound off at school budget forum
by Chuck Hoven
(Plain Press, June 2004) At the Cleveland Board of Education’s May 6 th Community Forum to discuss the proposed $100 million budget cuts, fifty community members and Cleveland Municipal School District (CMSD) staff members listened to an outline of the proposed cuts and shared their concerns and ideas with Board of Education members.
Board Chair Margaret Hopkins said the board was examining cuts proposed by the administration in six key areas. She blamed the unconstitutional way the state funds education for the current financial crisis. Ward 14 Councilman Nelson Cintron, Jr. said school funding was an “issue across the state of Ohio .” He said the state legislature caused the problem by giving tax breaks to the business community. Cintron said a statewide referendum is needed to solve the problem. He urged citizens concerned about school funding not to attack the Board of Education. He said the attack should focus on the state legislature.
Proposed cuts would reduce the number of school guidance counselors by 33%. Noting a large contingent of school counselors in the audience, School Board Member Dr. Sherona Garrett-Ruffin said, “I support the guidance counselors.” She urged the guidance counselors and the community to work together with the Board to help fix a system that is broken. Noting that Board members have children attending schools in the district, School Board Member Magda Gomez said in making the budget cuts the Board of Education “doesn’t want to sacrifice the future of our children.”
School counselors passed out a list of the various duties they perform in the schools that directly impact students. They then questioned the disproportional cut of 33% of the school counselors. They noted that after the proposed cuts that each counselor would be charged with working with an average of 1,043 students. Making a strong case for more examination of administrative cuts, one counselor noted that after the proposed cuts the ratio of those administrators charged with supervising the counselors to counselors would be one supervisor to every 12 counselors.
Longtime Near West Side activist Gloria Aron, a veteran of the School Budget Coalition, called for giving pink slips to all administrative or “at will” employees and asking them to reapply for their jobs at lower salaries. She called for the Board to look at eliminating administrative positions. Aron asked the Board to borrow the money necessary to keep school building staff and resources in place. She urged the board to go into state receivership if necessary. Such a move, said Aron, would make the state accountable and put pressure on the state to fix the school funding problem. Aron then urged those present to start a campaign to put pressure on the city government to place a moratorium on property tax abatement in Cleveland .
Aron asked, “Why. with all the money spent on Warm, Safe and Dry, did student after student come up to the podium at a recent hearing on the state funding of education and say they had rats in their school or debris falling in the classroom?”
Aron also noted many students said they had beat-up or no textbooks or they were sharing textbooks. She said this was not acceptable. She noted that in the past the now defunct Cleveland School Budget Coalition would examine the budget, department by department, to make recommendations to weed out waste. She called for a credible community organization to provide the same oversight and come up with good suggestions for the board.
A parent picked up on the theme of lack of textbooks, saying ‘textbooks are where the children get an education. Saving money is not worth sacrificing my child’s education.”
Several themes emerged among the comments from community members and school staff present at the meeting. One is that cuts should not be made equally in different categories as proposed by the Board. Another was that the Board should take a hard look at making significant administrative cuts.
Not all areas of the budget are equally important, noted Jim Lardie of For the Children and the Alliance for Children’s Education. Lardie said even more important than academics was assuring the safety and security of children. He said cuts to security, transportation and guidance counselors should be examined in terms of their impact on the safety of children.
A school counselor emphasized this point noting that at Thomas Jefferson this school year guidance counselors were instrumental in successfully intervening with nine students who were contemplating suicide. She noted that proposed cuts will leave only one guidance counselor at the middle school next year to meet the needs of 1,000 students. She noted that the work of the counselors involves guiding students on personal, social, and academic issues. Helping students with high school selection is an important function of middle school guidance counselors. With the proposed thirty-three percent cut in guidance counselor staff districtwide, the guidance counselor said, “instead of no child being left behind, all of the children will be left behind.”
Teacher Gene Tracy emphasized the importance of support staff to safety. Not properly funding support staff such as guidance counselors, social workers and school psychologist, he stressed, could lead to necessary resources not being in place for a potentially suicidal child. He asked “if a child commits suicide, wouldn’t the board be guilty of negligent homicide?”
Others present asked about more school crossing guards being put in place at busy intersections if children are asked to walk farther to school next year.
Several citizens took issue with large sports complexes and wealthy individuals getting tax abatements and other tax breaks at the expense of our children.
A number of people said the proposed cuts are too devastating to make. They urged the board to borrow the money to continue educational programs and go into state receivership. A school counselor said, “At this point, I don’t see that we can do anything else.” She noted that the school system has been in state receivership before. “We lived through it and survived it.” She contrasted this adult problem with the needs of the children she serves who only get one chance of getting what they need at a given age. “They don’t go through life and public schools more than once. Making these cuts, you are hurting our children,” said the school counselor.
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