Frightened and tearful parents as well as concerned teachers, town officials and a high school student spoke Wednesday, April 10 of the potentially devastating effect of cuts to the fiscal 2020 level-service school budget.
Through tears falling on the podium, a mother of a student with Down Syndrome expressed her concerns about her son’s educational future.
“The staff in Whitman have made it possible for my son, who has Down Syndrome, to be fully included within public education and that, alone, is worth more than anyone can say,” she said. “If you cut paraprofessionals — they are the heart of the program — it is detrimental to the special ed population. It’s detrimental to the population of children that are operating with social-emotional needs.”
She is a teacher herself and noted the only way to help children with trauma is on a one-to-one basis.
“The more you cut, those sick children are going to be hurting and the more they’re going to end up in an outside placement, possibly residential, or they’re going to hurt themselves,” she said noting there have recently been two suicides in the district’s middle schools.
Children who are being helped improve their grades through the work of dedicated young teachers first in line for layoffs also concerned the Bedford Street resident. Her daughter is one of them.
“She has changed my daughter this year,” she said of the teacher. “My daughter has become a phenomenal student, she has risen to the top. Her papers are coming home … with 100 on almost every test because that teacher has taken the time to pull her aside and work with her. Without her, without the paraprofessionals, my family wouldn’t be where we are today. … Don’t go lower [than 12.5 percent] tonight, just don’t go lower.”
Teachers’ union official Kevin Kavka noted there have been 100 teaching positions lost in the district since 2000.
Whitman resident Christopher George said W-H already has the second-worst foreign language program out of 31 surrounding towns.
“I know that because we took the time to email every single middle school principal and find out what they offer,” George said. “If people cared about that program, if the taxpayers cared about this program, we wouldn’t be talking about this right now, we’d be ready to pass an override.”
As a baseball coach, he said before any other educational program, athletics and other after-school programs should be “put on the chopping block.”
“People talk about sports in this town, they don’t talk about education,” he said. It’s like banging my head against a wall.”
A senior WHRHS band member spoke in support of the district’s teachers and of the music position facing cuts.
“Cutting even one position to [music] is a very emotional thing for me,” she said, noting the inspiration music teacher Devin Dondero has provided her. “That man has changed my life … He is someone who has helped me grow to the person I am today.”
Even one staff cut could be devastating for another student like her in the future.
“That could be the passion that a person has for an instrument,” she said. “To know that you could be cutting a position for someone who could have that same impact on a student as he’s had on me is hard to face.”
Residents and town officials who have been working on the budget process also spoke.
“If you feel like the town has been really with us for the last year, hand-in-hand trying to reason this out and being supportive, then I would approach this one way,” Whitman resident Shawn Kain, an advocate for capital planning said. “I do think this is a fundamental question. This is a negotiation and keep on negotiating with them, but I think they are negotiating strongly. …People are taking strong action for their departments and if you are taking a mild action because they’ve been pretty supportive over the last year, I think you are going to get a harsh result.”
Kain said there should be an override on the ballot, but Whitman officials weren’t prepared, for that lack of preparation he said he could not support an override right now.
School Committee member Christopher Howard said, while he respects Kain and his passion, he does not view the process as a negotiation.
“I don’t care whether the town can support it or not, I think we need to do what is right for the students of this district,” Howard said. “I’m not here to play games or negotiate.”
Emphasizing that he was speaking for himself, Whitman Selectman Randy LaMattina said that, at last year’s Town Meeting three members of the Whitman Board of Selectmen chose to use an “unorthodox funding solution to try to make every department whole.”
“It was very clear to me that evening exactly what we were doing — that we were putting ourselves in a shortfall situation and we would require an override,” he said. “What I will agree with is [it] failed. The process failed. We should have been ahead of this. The town of Whitman absolutely should have been going for an override this year, no doubt. Time was wasted. I’m not going to point fingers at anyone — I’ll shoulder the burden myself. Maybe I should have been more vocal, but we shouldn’t be in this position again.”
But at this point, Whitman is not in the position to go for an override before the fall, he added. He said he also didn’t want the schools to be left with a 4-percent assessment increase, so he supported the proposal to pursue a debt exclusion to remove the new police station and renovations to the Town Hall and fire station from within the levy limit and seek an operational override in the fall. He did disagree with Howard’s statement that the budget situation was not a negotiation.
“If you were dealing with an infinite amount of money, no, it’s not a negotiation,” LaMattina said. “But in the position I’m in, there’s a limited source of funds and we need to negotiate those alleys to determine the best possible result.”
Finance Committee Vice Chairman Dave Codero said no motions or commitments were made after the April 9 joint meeting with Selectmen, which he said — in his opinion — was “the most anti-school meeting I have ever, ever attended.”
He said he was shocked by a selectman’s contention that “our people didn’t get cut,” in reference to town employees.
After the 12.5 percent assessment discussion, Whitman parent Leah Donovan of Old Mansion Lane said, while she was pleased that nine positions could be saved, that still meant many positions would be cut.
“I don’t think that’s true across other departments in town,” she said. “I’m not here to consider what other departments can do. … We’re here to fight for the kid. We’re not here to be considerate of the others — there’s a time and place for that — but right now is not that time.”
Special education teacher Jill Kain also warned about the impact of cutting special education paraprofessionals, who she described as key to the success of students on IEPs.
“The next few years, if we cut these paras, there’s going to be more kids going out of district [at more than the $20,000 paraprofessional salary],” she said.