Community Responds to Financial Staffing Cuts in Westport Public Schools

Photo by Brendan Rand '11

By Ben Reiser, ’13 and Bryan Schiavone, ’13

On Feb. 24, the Providence, R.I. school committee handed pink slips to 1,929 Providence public school teachers. This decision was supported by mayor Angel Taveras, who said that the mass firing was a cost-controlling measure.

On March 1, Superintendent of Westport Public Schools Elliott Landon sent a letter to 144 untenured Westport public school teachers notifying them that their contracts would not be renewed for the 2011-12 school year.

“Your efforts on behalf of the students of Westport are appreciated, and I hope that you have found your experience with our school district rewarding,” Landon closed the letter.

Landon’s decision, says Director of Human Resources Marge Cion, is the result of “budgetary reasons,” and has sparked a negative reaction by teachers, administrators, and Board of Education (BOE) members alike.

“Obviously, it is an unsettling position to feel like you don’t have a job next year,” untenured Chemistry teacher Kristin Simonsen said.

President of the Westport Education Association (WEA) Kathy Sharp took a stand against the cuts at the March 24 Board of Finance (BOF) meeting, telling the Board that cutting down the budget “means that you’re not supporting the investment in our children.”

At the meeting, the BOF deducted $250,000 from the BOE’s proposed $98.6 million budget.

“We really believe that our Board and the administration have worked incredibly hard to deliver a very lean budget,” Sharp said. “If there were to be cuts, we are very concerned that this would have a devastating impact on the future of our children.”

Also at the meeting, BOF boardmember Kenneth Wirfel apologized to the parents and teachers concerned about the education budget, adding that the BOF means “no harm to education in Westport.”

The BOE backed Landon’s decision not to renew the contracts of the untenured teachers at a March 21 meeting, with a vote of 6-1. The only person who disagreed with Landon was boardmember Mark Mathias.

“I just didn’t feel that it was necessary. Our past practice was to advise some members of our staff, in particular those who are on a one-year contract or long-term substitutes [that they are not having their contracts renewed]. I just didn’t feel it necessary to change that practice,” Mathias said.

Regardless of the future staffing cuts, Mathias does not want to make any decisions that would affect what he calls “the highest quality education anywhere” until the budget has been finalized by the BOF.

“I don’t come up with solutions until we actually have a need for them. It’s premature,” Mathias said.

Landon was unavailable for comment.

Salaries and benefits will make up 82 percent of the $98.3 million budget for the 2011-12 school year. Westport public schools will also see its second-highest enrollment level in history, as well as its lowest staffing level in five years.

In spite of these numbers, BOE Chairman Don O’Day affirms that the BOE’s first priority should be to cut expenses, even if that means cutting staff in the process.

“I believe that we’ve run out of arrows in our quiver,” O’Day said. “We’ve done whatever needed to reduce spending and minimize the impact on our taxpayers.”

The nearby Wilton public school system has attempted just that, making significant cuts to their budget and reducing extracurricular activities in the high school by 20 percent.

Superintendent of Wilton Public Schools Gary Richards, who frequently meets with Landon and “compares notes” regarding the budget, says that he completely understands his approach.

“We’re all trying to navigate difficult financial times,” Richards said. “We’re trying to keep track of our mission.”

But in the eyes of Sharp, the BOE has lost track of the Staples High School mission statement, which includes “engaging and dedicated educators.” She adds that Landon’s letter was “devastating” to the morale of all teachers.

“We have all worked together so hard to create an exceptional educational system in Westport,” Sharp said. “I know I have the support of all of our teachers.”

An untenured teacher, who was granted anonymity due to the nature of the subject, supports Sharp in her fight to retain the budget, but admits that the process to do so is difficult.

“My honest opinion is that it’s an unfortunate situation and some things were unnecessary. It doesn’t feel good, and it certainly puts myself and other teachers in an uncomfortable and insecure position,” the teacher said. “Although we’ve been assured that most will get jobs back, it still doesn’t feel good.”

Untenured mathematics teacher Kerrigan Murphy predicts that reducing the amount of teachers will have a more powerful effect on the school system than other cuts.

“We teachers are what’s valuable. If they do a budget cut, that is what they’ll be missing. Not books, but teachers. The quality of education would suffer,” Murphy said.

According to one teacher, who was granted anonymity due to the nature of the subject, the budget cuts and the resulting job loss will affect not only the teachers themselves, but also their families.

“My number-one priority is the financial well-being of my family. In the face of uncertainty, the responsible thing for me to do as a parent and husband is to ensure that I continue to bring home a paycheck,” the teacher said, adding that there is no place he would rather be than teaching than Staples.

Another teacher, who was granted anonymity for the same reason, claims she feels almost helpless in this situation.

“It’s scary, but I guess there isn’t much I can do; the BOE has made the decision they feel is the right one. Whether it scares me or not, I have to respect it and hope for the best,” the teacher said.

Tenured teachers find that the decision is disheartening for many, but in the long run, practical.

“I understand the teachers’ perspective of fear and uncertainty, but from a business and legal perspective, it’s the right move on Dr. Landon’s part,” a tenured teacher, who was granted anonymity, said. “I see the business sense of it, as much as I think it sucks.”

Technically retired German teacher Lilan Revel shares a relaxed attitude about her future, saying that if she “really want[s] to work another year, [she] will find a job.”

She also acknowledges that the BOE could have responded differently to the cuts.

“The BOE does not really have a whole lot of choices, but they did it this time in a poor way,” Revel said.

Principal John Dodig predicts that reducing staff will have major consequences for students.

“It’s an issue of spreading the kids around, increasing class size, or forcing them to take something else,” Dodig said.

The budget cuts, while certainly affecting the public schools themselves, may also have a long-term impact on Westport as a whole.

According to Barbara Bross, a real estate agent and partner at the Riverside Realty Group, the public school system is the number-one reason why her clients choose to live in Westport.

“Before [my clients] even arrive in town, they have researched the schools and know that this community is where they will live based on the education their children will receive,” Bross said.

However, because of the recent budgetary cuts and the effect they might have on the quality of Westport public education, some in the real estate market worry that there will be an adverse effect on property values in Westport.

“Should Westport lose its ranking as a top school in Connecticut, it will no longer be a destination for those seeking a quality education without the expense of private school,” Linda Skolnick, a realtor for Prudential Connecticut Realty said. “Simply said, when demand decreases, prices follow.”

Elayne Landau, a realtor for Coldwell Banker Real Estate LLC, agrees, saying that a lesser education here in Westport could turn buyers away.

“Any reduction in quality in our school system is quickly and easily translated into a loss of buyers to other towns, where more attractive prices already beckon to these buyers. If they can get more house for less money in those other towns without the benefit of a better school system, it will be hard for these young families to justify the expense of choosing Westport,” Landau said.

Regardless of the impacts such decisions may have, most look to the BOE for the future of education in Westport. But Dodig claims that it is ultimately in the hands of its citizens.

“The people of this town should be shouting from the rooftops to sustain this system,” Dodig said. “It is the envy of other districts.”