Delaware’s biggest school district in quandary over Gov. Carney’s budget cuts

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Christina School District won’t close Sarah Pyle Academy, its alternative high school that has won a national award for dropout prevention.

The district won’t eliminate music and strings programs.

Nor will academic deans get pink slips, or the Montessori program end.

Those cherished programs and others were spared this month by the board of Delaware’s largest school district, which is grappling with how to — and whether to — implement a possible $6 million in spending cuts that could strike Christina as part of Gov. John Carney’s “shared sacrifice” budget.

Now, however, the district is back with another controversial proposal to close the gap – eliminating 77 teaching and other academic jobs. That proposal is sure to dominate discussion at Wednesday night’s board meeting — as cuts aimed at programs did at last week’s meeting.

As Delaware’s 19 public school districts prepare for how to cope with the loss of $37 million in state money – or seek to recoup up to $22 million through a so-called “match” tax they can levy on property owners — Christina’s board has sought transparency so the public can see what district administrators have in mind for students.

Christina’s board has tabled the district’s proposal to levy the match tax, and appears to be the first district in Delaware to put possible cuts to a board vote.

Christina’s quandary mirrors the dilemna educators and administrators across the state are facing as they decide whether to eviscerate programs or lay off employees — or both — and the pros and cons of levying the match tax to salvage some of the money but risk alienating voters.

Alternative school, music programs spared

At Christina’s May 4 board meeting, a chorus of more than two dozen parents, students, teachers, administrators and alumni voiced passionate defenses of pet programs they want saved from the budget ax. The public spoke before board members voted on a dozen “action items” suggested by new Superintendent Richard Gregg and other top administrators.

Robert Wayman, who has two children in programs slated to be jettisoned, surveyed the well-dressed members of the board and noted that they all have skills they want Christina schools to teach students.

“My oldest plays piano at a level I never could imagine,” Wayman said. “I find it shameful that anybody on this board is going to me this is going to be cut when you wear such nice clothes and I’m sure you drove here in such nice cars.”

After hearing a few Christina alumni talk about their professional careers in the music industry, including prominent posts at the University of Delaware, Brandywine School District orchestra director Anita Pisano noted that Christina “has a lot of very frightened music teachers” and students.

“Please do not show these students that Christina has abandoned the flagship for the string instruments in the state,” said Pisano, Delaware’s representative to the American String Teachers Association.

Fifth-grader Madison Haigh said that if string programs go, “I will be heartbroken…I love violin.”

Parent Susan Reazor echoed others in saying music programs, which benefit about 900 elementary and secondary students, help keep students attending Christina schools instead of going to charter, vo-tech schools or another district.

A total of 8,700 of the 23,100 public school students who live in the Christina district – 38 percent – don’t attend Christina schools, state statistics show.

“This is a retention item for a district that has trouble retaining students,” Reazor said.

The Pyle Academy proposal also drew intense support.

“It’s a jewel,” said Michael Kalmbach, who runs the Creative Vision Factory in Wilmington and has worked with students on mural projects to beautify the facility with 172 students on Wilmington’s East Side.

Jessica Sydnor, a substitute teacher who said has been “appalled” at the disrespect shown to educators and disruptions in some traditional Christina schools, said Pyle is a special place for students who could not succeed at Glasgow, Newark or Christiana high schools.

“These kids,” Sydnor said, her voice cracking, “were the most respectful, well-behaved kids. They love to learn.”

Board member John Young said that closing Pyle would be “a tragedy of epic proportions.”

One parent said it’s time for a state that trumpets its lack of a sales tax to finally levy one “to pay for all this.” Another parent suggested that since it’s rare that a football player becomes a professional – unlike the music students – perhaps football teams should be scrapped.

When it came time to vote, Christina voted no on nine of 12 action items. The only cuts were to:

Professional development, $150,000
Unfilled non-academic positions, $548,000.
Extra pay for extracurricular responsibility in academic, athletics and clubs, $200,000.

Board must weigh teacher layoffs

Those moves will save about $900,000 a small portion of the $6 million targeted in Carney’s budget. The district could recoup about $4 million by levying the so-called “match” tax without asking for voter approval in a referendum, but education officials fear that could alienate voters and jeopardize a district’s chances of having successful referendums in the future.

Gregg, who became superintendent April 20, said after the meeting that the district doesn’t want to cut any programs but needed to let residents know the magnitude of what administrators are facing. He said the district will return to the board with another slate of proposed cuts that most likely would include a “reduction in force,” a technical term for layoffs.

Gregg said the district is hoping legislators spare education from Carney’s proposed cuts but said the district must take tentative action by May 15 because teachers are required to receive layoff notices by May 15. Such notices can always be rescinded.

That proposal surfaced in writing Tuesday, when the district posted the latest “Superintendent’s Recommendation.””Seventy-Seven academic positions will be impacted,” the notice said, adding that class sizes would grow if the cuts are enacted. Some of the 77 position cuts will come through retirements or non-renewals of contracts educators, the notice said.

“The district must assume that the state will not provide $6 Million, and, that the board will not raise taxes,” the notice said.

Lawmakers have until June 30 to finalize a budget.

In the meantime, Christina is holding a meeting with its district lawmakers on May 22. They will also be considering a resolution Wednesday urging state senators and representatives to seeking an alternative solution.

Implementing Carney’s cuts, the resolution says, “will be devastating to programming and students.”

Instead, the proposed resolution asks lawmakers to find “structural, permanent solutions to future revenue for public education.”

Mike Kempski, a sixth-grade social studies teacher who heads the Christina Education Association, said his group is concerned that the district wants to lay off up to 77 educators and increase class sizes.

While Kempski also fears repercussions from residents should the match tax be levied, “We want to be able to provide the same level of service, being fully staffed. If it takes a match tax we’d like to see a match tax.”

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