School budget meltdown

Published 10:20 pm Thursday, March 4, 2010

Nearly 1,000 people descended upon King’s Fork High School Thursday night to lobby the Suffolk School Board for their favorite schools, programs and staff positions.

Many of the speakers were responding to rumors that a handful of elementary schools, gifted and talented programs, arts programs and even pre-Kindergarten programs are on the chopping block. The School Board must find a way to close a $9.4-million shortfall for the 2010-2011 budget year.

So many people were packed into the 740-seat auditorium that someone complained to the Suffolk Fire Marshal’s Office, which sent a few deputy marshals to bring the crowd under control. After three speakers, the meeting was stalled for about five minutes while police and fire marshals escorted the standing crowd out of the auditorium, causing a handful of heated arguments.

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Once the meeting got going again, citizens continued to voice their concerns for hours.

Cheryl Landy, a great-granddaughter of Florence Bowser, the namesake of Florence Bowser Elementary School, pleaded with the School Board not to close schools or increase class sizes.

“Overcrowding affects both students and teachers,” Landy said. “When a teacher must struggle to simply maintain order in a crowded classroom, the likelihood increases that they will suffer from burnout … Personnel are more apt to know students by name, and identify and assess students at risk.”

Luis Tamayo, president of the Creekside Elementary School Parent Teacher Association, encouraged higher taxes and pay cuts for administration as a way to close the funding gap. The School Board cannot raise taxes, however; that decision falls to the City Council.

“Pennies are going to give you millions,” said Tamayo, who also encouraged energy conservation to save money.

Several students, parents and teachers advocated for the arts. Norma Jackson, a Nansemond River High School marching band parent, said participating in the band has kept her daughter out of trouble and provided a means for her higher education.

“Band has provided for a lot of students to go to college, because they have gotten awarded music scholarships,” Jackson said.

Shalyn Baker championed programs for gifted and talented students.

“Our children still must grow up and compete in the global economy,” Baker said, adding that she would be willing to pay resource fees for teachers to have proper supplies. “They must have the excellent education they have had up to this point.”

As people spoke inside the auditorium, most of the crowd that had been ejected earlier remained outside in the cafeteria. School administrators worked to get sound piped into the gymnasium so the overflow crowd could still hear the comments.

“We’d like to hear what’s going on,” one woman yelled at a police officer.

Ruth Harrell, an Early Start teacher, took up the cause of pre-Kindergarten education, noting that studies show children in Early Start are less likely to need intervention and more likely to graduate later.

Though School Board chairwoman Lorraine Skeeter encouraged the crowd not to clap until the end of each speaker’s comments, applause and even standing ovations were common throughout the evening.

One King’s Fork High School senior spoke to give his thoughts on the disparity in funding between remedial programs and gifted programs. Some gifted programs may be on the chopping block this year.

“Growing up, I have been taught that good behavior is rewarded with extra privileges,” the boy said, calling the funding disparity the “antithesis” of what he was raised to believe.

For more details, see Saturday’s Suffolk News-Herald and check