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SOUTH KINGSTOWN - Public concern and difficult conversations abounded in the council chambers on Wednesday night during a joint budget hearing between the town council and the school committee.
Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow, School Committee Vice Chair Raissa Mosher and committee members Kevin Jackson and Scott Mueller were absent from the meeting.
Tia Beckman, a special education advocate, was the first to comment on the school committeeâs budget and the reduction of staff members in the special education department.
âThe funds for therapists is going down roughly $250,000 and teaching staff is going down $120,000,â said Beckman. âI would really question cuts here. I bring it up here because we are concerned with mental health, hospitals, kids cutting themselves and our criminal juvenile delinquency. I ask the town council to be critical and aware of what the school budgets cuts from the special education department. Last year I think it was $300,000.â
While the district claims that the percentage of students enrolled in special education has decreased by 7 percent, Beckman and committee member Jonathan Daly-LaBelle question how that happened.
âMy question is, âHow are the students being identified?â For many years, the students were not being identified for dyslexia,â said Beckman. âThe teachers do not learn about this in college. They are not skilled in identifying screens to identify these kids.â
Jonathan Daly-LaBelle echoed her concern.
âTheyâre proud to have that special education population down to 11 percent, but I never hear the reassurance that that is what the numbers should be,â he said. âI am the only person in this room that voted against the school budget this year - largely because of the concerns that you are bringing forward. There are a lot of cuts happening. During the current school year, we have cut 30-35 staff. Thatâs one year. This year weâre looking at 12.â
Daly-LaBelle continued to praise the district in all of its work, but said that the âgreat stridesâ that were taken previously have leveled out in recent years.
âItâs not the teachers, itâs not the aides, itâs not the students, itâs not the community members; it is what is happening in these meetings,â he said, earning nods of approval and audible appreciation from the public. âWe have a jewel. Our schools and our community is a jewel,â he continued. âIf you have a jewel and you donât take care of it, you lose it. People are opting out of our school system.â
School Committee Chair Maureen Cotter sympathized with Beckmanâs advocacy after pointing out that the amended school committee budget was actually passed unanimously.
âAny one of us who has personal experience with a child with dyslexia feels your pain,â she said. âWe understand. The school committee has really guided the staff in terms of where we want to advocate our funds, but the one thing we donât want to do is impact programs.â
Citizen, volunteer, and coach Donna Doyle expressed concerns on the facilities in the district - more specifically, the high school.
âI moved from Chariho specifically seeking out your school district,â said Doyle. âI thought I was moving into a really solid district. Iâm considering pulling out my girl in eighth grade so she wonât have to go through four years in a facility that has really been neglected. At some point, you have to take care of business for that school. Itâs disappointing - the condition of the facilities.â
Doyle continued to question whether the problem is with the budget or with the lack of interest in aesthetics.
âIt is my sense that this town financially has the resources to maintain a better facility than that,â she said. âThere are districts much more financially strapped than we are and those kids are walking around some beautiful homes and sports facilities. The high school feels like a juvenile detention facility from the 60s. Iâm wiling to open my wallet if you are willing to open yours. Iâm willing to pick up a paintbrush.â
Meg Healy and other members of the town council and school committee expressed their appreciation for the public input and continued advocacy, Healy saying that she is âvery proudâ of the citizens that came forward on Wednesday.
The next public hearing, and the last chance for the public to petition the final 2014-2015 year budget, is April 28 at 7:30 p.m. at the town hall.