After announcing their intent to lay off 127 teachers and support staff the day before, the Kent School District board members and Superintendent Calvin Watts spent three of the 3.5 hour meeting listening to students, parents, community members, and parents who had plenty to say.
The public packed the district’s conference room, an overflow room, and hallway to give voice their overwhelming opposition to the planned 7.9 percent reduction of staff that begins at the 2018-2019 school year. Speakers were allotted three minutes to comment, and students were offered an opportunity to speak first.
High School students were well represented from KSD’s high schools. Students voiced academic concerns about threatened programs such as AP and other optional courses to better position for highly competitive colleges. With the reduction of staff, students were also concerned that larger class sizes would compromise the academic quality of the existing programs.
A Kentwood student, a second year Chinese language student, expressed his concerned that this unique and valuable program could be cancelled.
Students were also angered about the lack of transparency of the news that directly impacts their lives, feeling the students should have known about the layoffs directly from the district rather than from news sources.
Seniors expressed concerns that younger family members would no longer be able to receive the quality educational opportunities they had received.
Losing the arts programs was also a concern, emphasizing how valuable these programs were, providing relief from heavy academics. Meridian Middle School students also spoke on retaining its choir program.
“We understand that you’re making hard decisions, but based on the people I see in this room, these aren’t the decisions we want you to make because we don’t want you to fire 127 teachers, specifically at Kentridge, 14 teachers,” said Kentridge student Austin Freeman.
Adult speaker concerns included many of the topics above, and a number of staff members spoke out on how difficult it would be to provide the quality of education, particularly those student populations with a broad range of issues that challenge a child’s learning. Both parents and staff shared personal, passionate success stories of how trust was slow established and subsequent successes were accomplished through building relationships, leveraging paraeducators, and capitalizing on right-sized classes. Speakers emphasized all those gains would be lost with the change in plans to increase class sizes.
Other moving personal stories came from a group of teachers who were recruited from Pennsylvania, Vermont, and New Jersey, just one year ago, to teach in a diverse district they thought embraced the values they cherished. “I’m in the middle of my first year of teaching… It’s unfair that many of my colleagues… and I were promised this position would last for at least two years, and now my job, my friends, and my KSD family are being ripped away from me. This is not my fault. This isn’t about my performance as a teacher. This is due to the poor decisions about the budget,” said this teacher.
Angered speaker Brian Madsen pressed the board to look for other ways to cut costs that were removed from the direct education of students. “You need to consider other options. Let the grass longer. Don’t water it. Let it go brown. Do less maintenance on the machinery and equipment. There’s definitely many opportunities you have to consider and look at those things that are farthest away from the classroom as possible,” said Madsen.
He also pressed further, challenging the board’s actions to pass the two levies in early February, quickly followed by the sweeping layoff announcements after the levies passed. “You knew full well, when you stood up in front of everybody, that you were going to cut teachers….” He urged the board to “backtrack” and engage with the public to make a better plan than the current one.
Although the group was asked to avoid mentioning names, a number of speakers spoke out about the unfair layoff of Mill Creek Vice Principal Charleen Pritchard, who has served the district for 16 years.
A new lack of trust has developed, stemming from the recent passage of two levies that barely passed February 13.
Pre-election promotional messaging noted that the levies fund “1 in 5 Employees Districtwide” and that “these levies give our students an opportunity to achieve their potential by receiving an excellent education to access to technology in a well-maintained school environment.”
Speakers felt those messages were misleading and the levies would have failed if early March layoff notices had occurred before the election. Speakers felt the delay was deceiving, and the KSD mission of “Moving Forward Together” was disingenuous.
Around the Table
After all the speakers had finished, Dr. Watts acknowledged the difficulty of the recent news and emphasized the district will actively engage with the community and raise its level of communication. Each board member made similar comments, with some making references to a dialogue to search for other options than the current one on the table.
I was at that meeting. I bore witness to all three hours of public comment. The overriding theme was that teachers, parents and taxpayers would told that if the levy passed there would be no cuts to the classrooms and then, after it passed there were cuts. The most angry were those that were recruited by Dr. Watts’ to “sell” the levies to others.