COVENTRY, RI — Nearly 400 Coventry teachers were laid off Thursday night as the school district grapples with the possibility of major cuts to programs. Superintendent Craig Levis said the district hopes to recall as many teachers as possible once a budget has been approved. Students and parents crowded Thursday night’s School Committee meeting, speaking in support of teachers and school programs as the layoffs were announced.
The future of the school system is uncertain after voters turned down the town’s budget during an all-day referendum last week. Faced with an unknown budget and short on time, Levis said the district will be planning for the worst — the same budget as last year — while hoping for increased funding.
“It’s possible we won’t have a set budget until the end of June, and we can’t wait that long,” Levis said Tuesday. “We cannot function on a level-funded budget, so we are planning for the catastrophic.”
If the district does not receive enough funding, Levis said there will be no option but to run Coventry High School on double sessions and cut all nonessential teachers and classes — as well as nearly all extracurricular activities.
Hundreds of residents attended Wednesday night’s Town Council meeting, when Interim Town Manager Edward Warzycha presented three alternate budgets that include large cuts to town services and the school districts. At the meeting, teachers, parents and students implored the Town Council to come up with a solution the preserves teacher’s jobs and the recreation department.
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“Those three options are not in the best interest of Coventry Public Schools,” Levis said Thursday. “The town believes these cuts are in the best interest of the residents…we need to inspire this community to support education. We can’t allow this to happen.”
State law requires the district to notify teachers of layoffs before June 1. Because of this rule, Levis said he had no other option but to lay off the “overwhelming majority” of teachers to create flexibility.
During Thursday’s meeting, Levis presented the potential cuts to school programs and staff. If the budget is level-funded, the district will cut $1.5 million by eliminating all high school and middle school extracurricular activities, leaving positions empty, drastically reducing high school sports and more. The full budget presentation can be viewed here.
After the superintendent presented the potential cuts, each member of the school committee spoke. Each was somber, saying they would not rest until the original budget is brought before voters again.
“I know what it’s like to be laid off: it’s not a good feeling. My heart goes out to everyone,” said District Three Committee Member Donna Kalunian. “I will fight tooth and nail for this budget.”
Once the School Committee members had spoken, the floor was opened up to public comment. Unlike Wednesday night, Thursday’s comment had a quieter tone; anger replaced with resignation to the impending layoffs. Dozens stood up to speak — teachers, voters, parents — but more than anyone else, students. Both middle and high schoolers, one after the other, calling for voters to step up and defend their education, thanking the teachers who have supported them through the years and telling their stories. One girl, a fifth grader about to enter middle school, begged the voters in the audience to come out and vote in the next referendum for her and all of her classmates who are too young to do so themselves.
“We’re going to end this night on a low note,” Kelly Ernakes, president of the Coventry Teacher’s Alliance, said. “We’re going to stand up and her our names called, and one by one, we’re going to stand proud. And after that, we’re going to go out into the community and we’re going to WIN THE VOTE!”
At the end of the meeting, the names of all 385 teachers being laid off were read aloud, a process that took 15 minutes. When all was said and done, only 40 teachers are still guaranteed to have a job in the Coventry schools next year.
After the committee voted to lay off the teachers, an additional 137 names of teaching assistants were read aloud, sparking a debate between the school committee and the superintendent over whether the additional layoffs were required, as teaching assistants are not bound by the June 1 deadline.
“I want these to have fair warning,” Levis asked the committee. “Are we just delaying the inevitable by pushing off these additional layoffs?”
In the end, the committee voted not to lay off the additional 137 teaching assistants, choosing to wait until after the Town Council decides on a budget.
Starting June 23, unemployment obligations will cost the town $260,000 per week and $60,000 per week for the additional staff.
Looking ahead, the Town Council will decide which budget will be presented to voters in the next all-day referendum, expected to be held June 20. If a budget is approved, the school district will hold a meeting the next day next day to recall teachers and discuss the final budget.