Toward the end of a “public input session” Thursday night on the Durham Public Schools’ proposed budget for 2017-18, school board member Minnie Forte-Brown told the crowd that it helps to put faces to the district’s proposed $11 million in budget cuts.
“It’s enough to talk about the numbers, but when you see the people and know how it affects them, you put a face to it,” Forte-Brown said shortly after more than 30 people had commented on the budget for next school year.
Forte-Brown added: “That’s what we have to do, that’s the power of making it human. So, when we go to the County Commissioners, we have to have faces with us, people to talk about what the impact is.”
Of the more than 30 people who spoke to the school board Thursday, there were no faces more compelling than those of sisters Sabrina Blandin, 14, a freshman at Durham School of the Arts and Abigail Blandin, 9, a student at Easley Elementary School.
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In a tear-filled emotional plea punctuated by hugs from little sister Abigail, Sabrina asked the school board to reconsider cuts that could lead to the elimination of the guitar program at DSA and teachers who have, to her, become like family.
Sabrina said she had an “accident” that forced her to miss three months of school, but that the school’s arts programs and her teachers helped her to quickly reconnect to the DSA community.
“Early this week, when I found out that some programs might be cut, I immediately thought of the teachers I wouldn’t see anymore,” Sabrina sobbed as she received a hug from Abigail. “I really got upset.”
Sabrina said students find “safety with teachers” and comfort in arts programs that help to give them purpose.
She said she is afraid that the proposed budget cuts will prevent Abigail from enjoying that same sense of safety from caring teachers or comfort in the arts.
“So, please try the best you can can to keep our teachers and our family together,” Sabrina said.
Abigail also told the school board that she is worried about budget cuts.
“When I grow up, I want to go to my sister’s school and I want to practice piano and guitar, but if they take it away, I won’t be able to,” Abigail said.
School board Chairman Mike Lee was visibly moved by the sisters’ testimony.
“With the little one there, that was killing me, that was tough,” Lee said, referring to Abigail.
Threats to the guitar and creative programs at DSA dominated the public input session, with more than 20 of the more than 30 speakers making reference to them.
As part of its cost-cutting strategy, DPS’ proposed $430 million spending plan for the 2017-18 school year calls for the elimination of 103 central office and school-based positions, including eight assistant principal positions and 24 teaching positions, in a move to save the school district $11.2 million
DSA Principal David Hawks acknowledged that the budget cuts would impact the guitar and creative writing programs at DSA.
Several speakers also spoke about the need to restore the 20 instructional facilitator (essentially teaching coaches) positions and eight principal positions that would also be eliminated under the proposed budget.
Jessica Austin, an assistant principal at Hillside High School, said Hillside would lose teachers, an instructional facilitator and an assistant principal under the current budget proposal.
“Losing teaching positions as well as an instructional facilitator will have a huge impact on instruction and our day-to-day life at Hillside,” said Austin, the district’s Assistant Principal of the Year. “Losing an assistant principal would impact not only instruction, but safety.”
Restoring the eight assistant principals, 20 instructional facilitators and 24 teaching positions would cost about $3.1 million.
Page McCullough, a member of the People’s Alliance’s education team, said that from among the recommended budget cuts and the district’s list of “deferred needs,” the PA sets as priorities restoring the 24 teaching positions and 20 instructional facilitator positions and increasing the district’s minimum pay to $15 per hour.
“We’re going to end up with less adults in every school if we stick with this request,” McCullough said, referring to the district’s recommended budget.
Jennifer Jenkins, a housekeeper at Holt Elementary School, asked the board to give the district’s classified workers a raise.
Classified workers include housekeepers, custodians, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, maintenance workers, office staff and others.
“We keep your schools clean and safe, provide your children with nutritional meals, transportation and ensure all students are safe,” Jenkins said.
Chad Kearsley, the father of a student at DSA and another at Githens Middle School, told the board that as a member of Microsoft’s education division he’s gotten to watch lots school districts along the East Coast struggle with tight budgets.
“What concerns and worries me is that I see a trend in this (DPS) budget that I’ve watched in other districts that are leading to outcomes that are not great,” Kearsley said.
He said that teaching positions and programs that are needed the most are often the first to be cut.
Arts and athletic programs often drive academic achievement, Kearsley said.
“One of the first casualties is achievement, achievement for every student,” he said.
Kearsley said cuts to teaching positions and programs eventually lead to a school system’s decline.
“The more positions you cut, the more teaching positions you cut, the less attractive the public schools look, so now people look at privatized education, they look at charter schools and private schools and it becomes a terrible spiral,” Kearsley said.