Concerned parents, students and teachers from around the county filled the media center at Thursday evening's special work session regarding impending school budget cuts.
The size of the crowd both surprised and pleased the Clay Community School Board of Trustees.
"We want to thank everyone for coming. I really appreciate everyone taking the time to come tonight" Board Member Dottie King said, explaining that the board needed the support and input of the entire community. "I want to hear ideas from the community."
As Superintendent Wil-liam Schad clarified numbers regarding the administration's proposal for budget cuts presented at the meeting on Jan. 19, the audience bristled with apparent frustration.
"If all eight recommendations are implemented by the board, and we do not replace the positions vacated by this year's retirees, the savings from these budget cuts total $1,148,184.19," Schad said, explaining that the board has to find the money. "These are pretty weighty issues. The question becomes one for taxpayers to decide in a referendum. They need to decide whether they want a tax increase to support seven elementary schools."
After thanking the administration for the presentation, Board President Ted Jackson opened the floor for audience comment.
An educator for 37 years, Mary Harrison took the floor first to speak on behalf of Media Specialists.
"I am the program and educational portion in the library that you're eliminating," she said, passing out a summary to the board of the job skills that make Media Specialists, and other library workers throughout the school system, an important part of a student's education. "It saddens me to think that my grandson, who will be in first grade in a few years, will have less opportunities to learn in a library than his parents."
Lana Hendrix, spoke on behalf of the staff of Meridian Elementary.
"Closing one school will effect the education of students in all the schools. We ask the board to not close Meridian Elementary. We're making a difference in our students' educational lives," Hendrix said, explaining that the school, which has a large amount of disadvantaged students, had the lowest ISTEP scores in the county just a few years ago. But with a united team spirit, the staff has worked tirelessly to improve performance. The school now has 81.5 percent of its students pass the test. "Does it really make sense to close one of the best schools in the corporation?"
After home-schooling her five children for several years, Sheila Pennington has recently re-enrolled them in school at Meridian Elementary because of the strides it has made in student performance.
"I'm new to all this, and pretty naive, but I have a couple of questions. How can you guarantee class size?"
When Superintendent Schad finished explaining that students could be absorbed into classrooms without much difficulty, Pennington continued.
"And what about administration cuts? I didn't hear any mentioned," she asked. After the audience and board laughed together for a moment she continued. "I'll pay higher taxes to afford my kids an education if that is what it takes. And that is where it goes."
Scott Hamilton disagreed.
"Every time taxes raise, the spending continues. And we're in the same boat as before," Hamilton said, explaining that he didn't understand some administrative decisions. "How can you fire someone and then pay two people for one job because you have to buy out a contract? Did that person really warrant firing? I think those policies need to be looked at."
Russ True, President of the Clay Community Classroom Teacher's Association, urged the audience and the community to contact their representatives, the state legislature and Governor Mitch Daniels. "The government can not cut educational funding without expecting local school boards to look at these types of budget cuts. The Governor and the legislature don't understand these problems until you tell them."
Dr. Forest Buell voiced concerns about the academic effects of closing a school on students, but also stated that this is an emergency situation that will require creative thinking to solve.
Concerned about the board cutting their coach as part of the ECA budget cuts, sophomore Chris Dean, senior Gatlin Ferro and junior Greg Stultz of the Northview wrestling team spoke unaimously for their teammates. "There wouldn't be a program if it wasn't for Coach Mike Whitesell," the boys said.
An unidentified parent stood up and commended the wrestlers, "Those boys are going to regionals this weekend, and they take time out of their schedules to work with younger kids because of Coach Whitesell's leadership. His character has traveled down through the youth to those boys."
The board unanimously agreed that making budget cuts is a difficult thing, but it has to be done.
"None of us want to make negative changes for students, but as adults we have a responsibility to make tough decisions," Jackson said, explaining that he would like to open discussions at the next meeting on more secondary level cuts. "The elementary schools have been cut enough," he said.
Strong advocates of small schools, Steven Grigsby, Jim Guy and Joe Thomas made their opinions clear.
"I'll never raise my hand to close an elementary school," Grigsby said as the other two men nodded in agreement. "It's not real smart to spend $700,000 to renovate a school and then talk about closing it."
But talking about budget cuts is going to continue.
"This has been coming for three years. When the state increased spending, we spent it. But its not there now," Board Member Terry Barr said. "The reality is here. I don't want to do this any more than the others. Anything we do is going to hurt, but we don't have a cash balance anymore."
The discussion of budget cuts will continue at the Thursday, Feb. 17 meeting in the North Clay Middle School Media Center at 7:30 p.m.
All board members were present.