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Teachers voice alarm over potential program cuts

Concerns about the fate of Vashon High School’s celebrated social studies program reached a head last week when a handful of teachers attended a school board meeting to challenge what they saw as a misguided direction by the administration.

The administration quickly quelled the concerns, saying the teachers’ upset was driven by miscommunication between the district and the teachers, not a decision to slash the program. But it underscored the delicate situation the district finds itself in as it tries to address an uncertain budget without laying off any of its current teachers.

“This shows you what happens when the pressure of not having enough money comes down,” said social studies teacher Martha Woodard.

Ironically, the brouhaha came at the same time that Superintendent Michael Soltman announced that a combination of fundraising and teacher retirements meant he wouldn’t have to issue any layoff notices to teachers to balance the budget this spring.

At the school board meeting on Thursday, a large group of parents and students, in addition to the teachers, showed up to express concern over reports they’d heard that social studies classes at the high school may be cut. Many were there in response to a lengthy letter written by one of the social studies teachers, as well as the fact that course listings released by the school suggested social studies offerings could be reduced for the 2012-2013 school year.

Soltman, however, told parents and teachers it was highly unlikely that social studies classes would be cut.

“What I want to assure you tonight is that no decisions have been made,” he said.

According to the letter, written by longtime social studies teacher Cindy Powell and widely distributed to district families and board members last Wednesday, district administrators about a month ago asked two VHS social studies teachers to outline curriculum for classes to be offered should the district not replace, or only partially replace, two highly regarded social studies teachers who are retiring this year — Powell and her husband Mike Zecher.

The teachers complied, and the process created what Powell called a complete turmoil within the social studies department over what teachers saw as imminent cuts should the district not raise enough funds to cover the budget deficit. One scenario outlined by the staff included eliminating AP Government, a class students can receive college credit for.

“This has been the most demoralizing exercise we have had to go through in the past three years,” Powell said at the meeting.

Powell, Zecher and Woodard all expressed their concerns to the board, saying VHS has a strong social studies curriculum and cutting classes would create a sub-par program and hurt students’ chances of getting into college. What’s more, they said, it was unfair to ask the department to develop a new program in a short amount of time and before they knew if the district would raise enough funds to avoid cuts.

They also expressed confusion as to why social studies classes — considered to be core classes — would seemingly be cut before electives just because there were retirements.

“That’s not the way to decide cuts,” Woodard said at the meeting.

“I do believe everyone is working for the good of the school,” she added, “but I don’t get it.”

Soltman, however, explained that the process was nothing more than an exercise the district asks teachers to complete any time there are retirements in order to consider all options. The limited classes that teachers outlined shouldn’t have appeared in the course listings, he said, and cuts would never be made without public input and a board decision.

“I acknowledge there were some communication problems. … I’m sorry for that,” Soltman said at the meeting.

Some board members also defended the practice.

“From the board perspective, it’s a healthy exercise to go through,” said board member Laura Wishik.

“This one obviously went astray,” she added.

Since the schools foundation has raised over half of its goal and five teachers are retiring this year, Soltman said the district could avoid the painful process of issuing layoff notices to teachers this spring only to rehire most of them just before school starts, as it’s done in past years.

He said the school district now plans to cover the classes that were taught by Powell and Zecher with internal transfers. And if the foundation reaches its goal, he said, the district hopes to hire new teachers to replace them.

“We are planning to hire a couple really good teachers that will hopefully follow in the legacy of Cindy and Mike,” he said.

After the meeting, teachers said they were relieved that the social studies program seemed to be safe, but still expressed frustration about what they went through and raised questions about the philosophy behind budget cuts.

While board members said they would aim to cut electives before core classes, they also said no program is necessarily off the table if cuts must be considered. Last year, they noted, a similar situation in the math department caused upset.

“The only reason social studies got heightened attention this time was because there were two retirements,” Wishik said at the meeting.

Powell, however, said in an interview after the meeting that she believes core classes such as social studies should never be considered for cuts before electives. Asking teachers to consider reductions just because there were retirements was arbitrary and insulting, she said.

“We need clear criteria,” she said. “We need to standardize the process by which we examine contingencies.”

What’s more, Powell said, she was offended that Soltman suggested the situation was a simple exercise that teachers misunderstood.

“That’s a complete mischaracterization of what’s been going on,” she said. “The staff has been so upset; the staff has been thinking we are losing a program that has truly been … carefully crafted over a decade.”

Woodard, one of the two teachers asked to reconfigure the program, agreed.

“If you’re asked what would you do if you have only one (teacher replaced), it seems common sense that they’re considering that. … It made us quite upset, whether it was their intention or not,” she said.

In an interview, Soltman said he was glad to have clarified the situation at the meeting, and that the high school course listings were changed the next day to allow students to sign up for all the social studies classes that are regularly offered.

“I think we created confusion there and angst that didn’t need to occur,” he said.

As of Monday, the Vashon Island Public Schools foundation had raised about $270,000 of the $500,000 in pledges needed to bridge the district’s budget gap and avoid any program cuts. Foundation board chair Zabette Macomber said she was pleased with the progress, especially considering that at this point in last year’s campaign the foundation had brought in just $199,000.

Soltman said he, too, was feeling good about the campaign. In fact, he said that since this year’s fundraiser is garnering stronger support earlier in year, it looked as if the district would not have to formulate a list of possible program cuts — a process that in recent years has caused much anxiety among staff and families.

“I believe that people will contribute to the foundation, and we’ll have the money we need to have a full program,” he said.

And in light of the recent upset, Soltman said the situation was unfortunate but highlighted the need for everyone to give to the schools. He added that perhaps it was time for the district to have a broader conversation about program philosophy and the weight given to core programs.

“I think actually we’re in a good position now to have that conversation and take a look at our long-term sustainability,” he said.

 

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