By Meg O’Neil
A state law that requires all school districts to send layoff notices to teachers by March 1 was criticized by members of the Newport School Committee, who ultimately voted to approve the action of administering pink slips to 31 of Newport’s 212 teachers during their regular meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 12.
“We’ve asked for years that the state push back the notification date to June 1 when we have a better understanding of enrollment numbers and the budget,” said Supt. John H. Ambrogi. “It’s outrageous that we have to go through this every year.”
School departments are required to send out layoff notices as a worst-case scenario option to protect the district in case of future budgetary issues. The March 1 notification date is relatively early compared to other states, but the practice is meant to allow laid-off teachers enough notice so they have time to find other jobs.
“I believe the vast majority will be coming back, but this is just a fail-safe that we go through every year. This is not an enjoyable process,” Ambrogi said.
Two Newport School Department employees expressed their frustration of the notification process to the School Committee.
“Every year, [the School Committee] supports the demoralizing practice of laying off good people,” said Scott Dickison, a science teacher at Rogers High School.”This is not a healthy way for professionals to work together. I’ve been patted on the back 100 times, and have been told not to worry, that my job is safe. But this is a cruel burden to lay on the backs of teachers who are working on the front lines with students.”
Of the 31 teachers receiving layoff notices, 15 are tenured. At Rogers High school, thirteen teachers will receive pink slips; five at Thompson Middle School; and fourteen teachers at the elementary level (4 at Cranston Calvert, 4 at Sullivan-Triplett, 2 at Coggeshall, and 4 at Underwood). Last year, 34 teachers and staff members received pink slips. The year before that, it was 30. While the majority of teachers who receive lay-off notifications ultimately do not lose their jobs, the process causes anxiety.
Dickison urged the School Committee to take a stand: “You upset people. We know legislation has been introduced to push the date back, but in the meantime you are toying with people’s lives and creating chaos amongst teachers. This is not what we need when we’re trying to build a community of learners and build a better school system.”
For school nurse Valerie Druken, a pink slip to any of the school system’s five full-time nurses teachers would be detrimental to the district. “We are pretty much maxed-out even now in full force,” she said. “I’d like you to consider how difficult it would be if you eliminate a nurse.”
Druken said the world of school nursing has dramatically changed in the past ten years. With illness outbreaks, record keeping, immunization and food allergy compliance in the cafeteria and classroom, and medically fragile students, the nursing staff cannot afford to take a loss.
Committee member Robert Leary asked if the list of the 31 teachers being laid off was based on seniority. Supt. Ambrogi said it was, so most of the notifications are sent to the district’s newest hires.
School Committee member Jo Eva Gaines voted against the layoff notices, saying, “I can’t support this. As much as I know that we need to balance the budget, I’m tired of balancing budgets on the backs of kids. We’re losing talented people. I see nurses being cut, I see the science department being decimated, I see our arts program that is starting to bloom being decimated … I can’t do this again.”
Members of the School Committee said it was important that the community, school department unions, and other districts push local representatives and senators to make sure the Department of Education takes action in moving the notification date from March to June.
The action item passed 5-2, with Gaines and Sandra Flowers opposing. “Without the teachers, We have nothing,” Flowers said. “We could have the best buildings in the world, but if we don’t have those folks in the classroom or in the nurse’s office – just close up the doors.”