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Parents raise alarm over school budget

“Save our teachers,” “Save our programs,” “Save our school” and “Save our children” were the rallying cries on Monday evening.

About 60 people showed up at a Holland town meeting hosted by Suffolk School Board member Enoch Copeland to show their concerns about the future of education in Suffolk in the face of reduced state and local funding.

“The cable lines only run out to the school, so most our people have no way of knowing what’s going on,” Copeland said. “I’m doing what I can to bring information to them and get their input.”

Speakers also included Superintendent Milton Liverman and the councilman for the Holland area, Jeffrey Gardy.

Faced with the prospect of losing $9 million or more in state educational funds, Liverman has been spending time during the past couple of weeks considering the effects of various changes to the school system’s operations.

One of those changes, offering early retirement incentives to employees, could save up to $2.4 million, he said. Another, closing three elementary schools and redistricting their students, could result in another $1.7 million in savings.

Florence Bowser, Mount Zion and Robertson Elementary schools all have fewer than 300 students. Closing them — a possibility Copeland had directed Liverman to explore — would reduce the system’s personnel and maintenance costs.

Parents at Monday’s meeting, however, worried that the result would be fuller classrooms.

“I would have loved to keep small classroom sizes, but in these times we can’t afford to do that,” Copeland said.

Longer bus rides were also a concern, and Liverman explained buses would be less full, which would allow for speedier trips. Also, the software used to plan potential bus routes would ensure children aren’t on the bus longer than 45 minutes, he said.

For some of the students who were moved, Gardy said, cramped conditions could be a temporary problem, as the City Council is considering taking advantage of $16 to $18 million in stimulus funds available for systems to build new schools, thus moving along the previously postponed process of building a new school to replace Robertson and Southwestern.

A provision of the stimulus funds is that the school must be built within 36 months.

“The moment we’re told we build a school, it can be done in 14 months,” Liverman said.

Some residents asked why the stimulus funds couldn’t be used to build a school in Holland and later rehabilitate the school in Whaleyville. But after the meeting, Gardy explained. “The stimulus money isn’t a gift. We still have to pay that back. It’s just at a lower interest rate over 15 to 17 years.”

“It appeared the people were most concerned about their teachers not losing jobs and their programs,” Copeland said after the meeting. “I’m going to do what I can, but I’m confident we can weather this storm.”