Committee votes down deeper layoffs after outcry

Committee votes down deeper layoffs after outcry

CUMBERLAND – Thirty-six employees, most in health, physical education, music and art, will retain their jobs after the School Committee narrowly voted last week to reject a secondary layoff list brought about by budget uncertainty.

Only an original list of 20 positions was approved at the May 25 meeting, meaning school officials will now look for other ways to close an undefined budget gap that remains in flux due to questions on funding from the state.

The committee voted 4-3 against approving the second list of 36 layoffs, with Karen Freedman, Denis Collins, Heidi Waters and Jennifer Bernardo voting against, and Chairman Paul DiModica and members Mark Fiorillo and Ray Salvatore voting for them. Those who voted yes said it was perhaps the worst vote they’ve had to take in their tenure, but Fiorillo said the risk to the district in not having financial flexibility was just too great.

Bernardo, describing the layoffs as unfair, said she can’t support “the potential of bare-bones education.”

Collins, a teacher, also voted no on the first set of layoffs.

Though the votes were on staffing numbers for layoff notices, much of the discussion in last week’s virtual meeting revolved around deeper questions:

• Why are art, music and physical education teachers treated as non-essential when they’re so important to the overall well-being of students?

• Why does the district and town continue to go through the same budgetary angst every year despite it causing turmoil among teachers and students?

• Why don’t layoffs happen the same way across departments if the district really views every kind of teacher as essential?

• And should Cumberland continue its relationship with Blackstone Valley Prep and keep sending the school so much money?

Numerous teachers up for layoffs last Thursday spoke out prior to the vote, most with strong words of rebuke related to the process and cases for why the work they continue to do is so important to the overall health and welfare of students.

In voting no, Freedman said she did so with the hope that district staff will come to the table in the coming days about possible concessions, including a deferral of a pay period or raise.

A two-week loss of pay would equate to about $1.6 million in savings, while a dropped 2 percent pay raise equals about $900,000.

“We have to figure out as a district, how do all of us help some of us?” she said prior to the vote.

Supt. Bob Mitchell said the district’s financial situation changes almost daily, and is complicated by various scenarios being looked at for educating students under new guidelines this fall. All options are pointing to changes in costs to accommodate the new normal, he said, including more busing costs and greater steps to keep students apart and sanitize buildings. It’s impossible to budget based on how the district normally runs its system, he said, as there are going to be costs no one can anticipate.

Three models presented by Assistant Supt. Tony DiManna two days earlier showed what fall could look like:

• Elementary students in school and secondary students continuing with distance learning.

• A hybrid model of half of learning happening in school and half at home, a sort of parallel school system. DiManna said this is the most likely scenario.

• And complete distance learning.

School staff are surveying families to get more information as they make decisions, including such questions as whether they’ll need busing for the next school year.

On the layoff notices, Mitchell said the June 1 deadline to issue them, without an extension granted, really put the district in a bind in having to bring them to a vote to add flexibility.

Mitchell said he sees “tremendous value” in all of the positions that were up for cuts last week, saying he never wants to lose anyone and he hoped to get everyone back. Having been trained in health and physical education, he said, he understands that these classes are critical, as are music and art.

“I see them all as essential,” he said.

Waters said a true worst-case layoff vote would have been to issue pink slips to everyone in the district, saying it should be an “all or nothing scenario” and not just targeting certain departments.

State and local union representatives ripped the proposal for 36 additional layoff notices, citing the disruption and anxiety they cause and the potential to force out good teachers, as well as the impacts on students who have already faced so much disruption and are going to need every service they can get this fall.

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McCourt art teacher Carolyn Dooley said she understands that this year is very different, but she said the arts are the “soul of a school,” and for many students it’s why they get out of the bed in the morning, and local student art gets global exposure.

“The arts are needed now more than ever,” she said.

Kerri Marshall, an art teacher at Garvin and Ashton, said teachers are exhausted from “being used as bargaining chips to increase funding” each year. Teachers are professionals who deserve to be valued and appreciated, she said, and school officials need to advocate for them.

A group of physical education teachers each took a different angle in criticizing the move to cut positions in that department.

Colin Smith, wrestling coach and department head at Cumberland High School, said he’s “extremely proud” of the work the staff has done during distance learning to continue delivering valuable instruction to students, calling what they do “essential instruction” to the overall health of students.

Brendan Casey, a teacher at CHS, said a district that “religiously preaches” its strategic plan contradicts itself when it treats teachers in certain departments like they’re non-essential. What evidence or best practices were used to make these decisions, he asked.

Some students and Cumberland graduates also spoke up on behalf of those who were facing layoffs, speaking of the value they’ve gained from their classes.

Mitchell said the union has indicated some willingness to talk about concessions, but said no specific details have been discussed.

Crystal Bergantine, an assistant executive director with the National Education Association Rhode Island, thanked the committee for saying no to the layoffs and criticized the idea of furloughs, saying all that does is kick the can down the road. The town’s neglect should not fall on teachers’ backs as has happened again and again, she said.

Bergantine said it’s also time to do something about the funding that’s going to Blackstone Valley Prep, saying the district should stop sending students and that Mayor Jeffrey Mutter should leave the board for the school.

Committee member Collins said the district “is robbing Peter to pay Paul,” saying there’s a “revenue issue, not a spending issue.” BVP’s 421 students from Cumberland represent less than 9 percent of the students in town, he said, yet the town sends $3 million and loses state aid, all while having no oversight of the school.

Though there are legal obstacles, said Collins, the town has the ability to walk away from the partnership with BVP and should do so for its own health and growth. Based on the financial strain, officials need to begin to have the conversation about re-evaluating its relationship with the charter school, he said, and owes that to local students and families.