School Board to avoid teacher lay-offs after strong community reaction

BY LUKE VOELZ | APRIL 27, 2011 7:20 AM

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Teachers who were at risk of being laid off in the Iowa City School District due to budget cuts are likely now safe in their jobs.

District officials were considering cutting 22 full-time-equivalent positions for the upcoming school year. But after an outpouring of response from students, parents, teachers, and community members, the School Board decided Tuesday to tap into its reserve funds to spare the positions.

School Board members voted unanimously at the meeting to decrease the amount of the general-fund budget placed in the district's reserve fund from 5 percent to 3 percent. District officials said this $2.5 million in savings could be placed back into the general fund to save the 22 positions.

Nearly 200 students, faculty, and parents watched the decision at the board's Tuesday meeting. Many of them came from West High or City High, which have faced up to 12 full-time-equivalent position cuts at the high-school level as a result of a projected $6.8 million deficit for the upcoming school year. Officials were also anticipating cutting 10 elementary teachers.

West High students formed a sea of navy-blue shirts bearing the message "THIS IS OUR FUTURE" and "EDUCATION MATTERS." Luke Brooks, a junior at the high school, wore a suit and tie as he addressed the board during the public comments section.

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"I understand cuts are going to have to happen," he said. "There's no way around that. There are going to be people at the end of the day who lose their jobs. [But] we need to put our priority on teachers, because teachers are really who educate us."

A majority of students and faculty agreed with Brooks throughout the night.

West High senior Caleb Clark responded to the possibility of losing arts and music teachers through the 22 cuts. The choir program at West, he said, helped him find discipline and motivation after struggling with grades and not fitting in during his freshman year.

"I gained many performance and technical skills and good friends, as well," he said. "Choir has given me confidence, both to sing in front of others and stand before all of you today. Please do not cut it back at West High."

Board member Mike Cooper told the crowd the School Board did not want to see music and art programs cut, but the board was put in a difficult position on what to cut because of decreasing government funding. He reminded the board the district had committed more than $6 million to an arts expansion at City High.

"The decision we're trying to make is, 'Do I pay the gas bill or the light bill when I can't afford both?' " he said. "The board was not making a decision about cutting music programs — that wasn't our decision to make."

Cooper expressed reservations about reducing the reserve fund to 3 percent at Monday night's work session and reminded the crowd that cutting the reserve this year would require the board to bring that money back in the 2012-13 school year. This, he said, could lead to an even greater deficit if the board cannot find greater funding sources by that point. He compared the board's situation to putting one's debts on a credit card.

"What concerns me is that I'd like to believe a short-term solution can get us through this," he said. "I'm struggling with which bill we don't pay, and by putting it on credit, we still have to pay it.

Government funding is not going to increase next year. These problems are going to get worse instead of better."

However, he joined the rest of the board in voting in favor of the bill.

"I don't want to ruin any of these programs," he said. "But you've certainly convinced me of your passions."

Board Vice President Tuyet Dorau agreed that budget cuts put the board in a difficult position.

"This is going to require shared sacrifice on our parts," she said. "The board and administration are doing the best they can to preserve classroom size and programs. But no doubt, there is going to be pain in the future, and that pain is going to be felt collectively."

Brooks said he was aware of the future difficulties the reserve drop would bring, but he chose to support it in hopes of finding increased funding through the state Legislature.

"[West High supporters] don't see the 5 to 3 percent as a solution," Brooks said. "We saw it as a bridge to help us to something more secure and more helpful as a whole. We need to get as much support as we can from the state. We've got as much as we can get at the city and district level. Hopefully, we can get the governor to side with us on this."

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