As budget cuts loom, interest is light

Published 10:41 pm Thursday, February 11, 2010

Despite the past week’s dire warnings of the severe cutbacks that loom as a result of an expected decrease in state educational funding, a public hearing in Suffolk on Thursday drew only two speakers hoping for a say in the local school budget process.

A local schools budget already reeling from the effects of the recession took a staggering blow this week with the news that Gov. Bob McDonnell would allow a change to a funding formula that is expected to cost Suffolk $4 million.

Suffolk School Superintendent Milton R. Liverman has warned of deep cuts to — or the complete loss of — many programs not related to Standards of Learning if the expected revenue reductions are not somehow balanced out.

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In such a climate, a crowd of people wanting to save their favorite educational programs might have been expected.

Instead, Thursday’s meeting featured only two speakers, both of whom rose in support of the division’s Early Start program. The hearing lasted only 10 minutes.

“Without Early Start, kids from at-risk and low-income homes will really suffer,” said Anthony Wilkerson, a parent of two children in the program. “There has to be another way to find what the board needs without cutting Early Start.”

Early Start is one of the programs that could be targeted for deletion if the school system is forced to make large reductions to balance its budget, Liverman has said.

Early Start is a program aimed at preparing pre-kindergarten students for school. There are currently 350 students in Suffolk’s Early Start classes. The children learn things such as their ABCs, shapes and numbers. The goal is that by better preparedness academic failure in later years will decrease.

“People may think all we do is play, but learning is always occurring,” said Kerry Patterson, an Early Start teacher at Booker T. Washington Elementary School.

Patterson urged the board to either save the program or cut it back, if need be — but not to eliminate it. She said there were few preschools in the area, and they’re costly, which would mean that students who most need the help that Early Start provides would be shut out of the system.

“I understand why they have to make cuts,” Wilkerson said. “Someone is going to suffer from these cuts, but if they cut this program, it’ll be the kids.”

Before adjourning to a closed session at 5:10 p.m., Chairman Lorraine Skeeter added the board had also received emails about the school budget from concerned citizens, as well.