Community Debates Budget Cuts at District Forum

Superintendent Tamu Lucero addresses the crowd at Rogers International School Monday, May 20.

Photo by Isabella Garcia

Superintendent Tamu Lucero addresses the crowd at Rogers International School Monday, May 20.

Isabella Sorial, Editor-in-Chief

Hundreds of Stamford Public Schools’ staff gathered in The Rogers International School auditorium on Monday, May 20 to discuss ways the district could save money.

From last year, the Department of Education was in a $3.3 million deficit because of mold expenses, increasing health insurance costs, and an unexpected increase in outplacement of those with learning disabilities.

The Department of Finance cut $2.6 million from the budget, leaving us with $5.8 million of services to cut.

New Stamford Public Schools Superintendent, Tamu Lucero, submitted a proposed list of ways we could trim the budget. The overwhelming consensus is that the staff in our district is not happy with the proposal.

Among the many cuts were plans to eliminate much of Stamford Public Schools’ Media Center Staff. Three options were proposed.

Option one would eliminate 23 media paras, leaving one at Stamford (SHS) and another at Westhill (WHS).

Option two would cut 10 Media Specialists (five from middle schools, two from SHS, two from WHS, and one from AITE) and 16 media paras (13 from elementary schools, one from SHS, one from WHS, and one from AITE).

Option three would be to cut five media specialists (two from middle schools, one from SHS, one from WHS, and one from AITE) and 16 media paras (13 from elementary schools, one from SHS, one from WHS, and one from AITE) with a plan to split the remaining specialists amongst the middle schools.

Dolan media specialist Jenna Cinelli claimed that The Stamford Advocate, a local newspaper, said that their “job is tech support for staff.”

She countered this by saying that, without media specialists, students “will be very unprepared for college & career.” She mentioned that Norwalk eliminated media positions and regretted it.

Many people spoke about the importance of media specialists.

Stamford High Fashion Teacher Tracy Bass co-taught with media para Linda Marchisio to incorporate technology into their designs. “Students saw 3D-printed garments at the Met Gala . . . and immediately asked her about Ms. Marchisio helping them to make 3D garments.”

Newfield’s media center director, Elaine Gencarelli, spoke about an ELL training, where the technology wasn’t working.  She volunteered to help them get the technology up and running.

Additionally, she “doesn’t take lunch to prep sometimes,” and instead helps teachers fix their Promethean boards. She told the audience that “life-long readers become more productive human beings.”

Scofield’s media specialist, Keely Norton, told the audience that they “allow [students] to compete in 21st-century society.”

WHS’s media specialist, Ruth Letson, felt media specialists had “been targeted.”

She mentioned that they “teach kids how to use lots of technologies” and “offer students study space.” At Westhill, many people come in with passes for anxiety. School psychologists tell students to decompress in their school library.

SHS’s media specialist, Mary George, had numerous reasons that her position was important.

This school year alone, our media center has received over 13,000 passes. Furthermore, George has co-taught over 10,000 classes and has overseen students eating lunch in our media center over 11,000 times. Additionally, there have been about 36,000 total walk-ins. Without media specialists, students will not be “provided with the same opportunities as neighboring communities.” There will be a “change in working conditions for the teachers left.”

George helps long-term subs. When teachers’ online textbooks are not working, she “calls customer service.” She provides one-on-one training to teachers at any time, and helps to conduct IB evaluation interviews; “The school needs an IB librarian,” she stated. Her and Marchisio are Nearpod certified educators. “Kids come in asking for books about nursing” which allows them to help kids research their careers. Without media specialists, the district will be at risk for a loss of NEASQ accreditation, which makes the district look good to prospective students. There are three students interning in the library for the Senior Internship Program.

George advises computer science coding, the senior capstone, Stamford High’s Girls Who Code Chapter, and The Book Club where “Kids get to meet New York Times [Bestselling] authors.” She furthered her stance on the significance of the book club, stating, “you can’t have that without our staff and you certainly can’t have that without me.”

George mentioned that volunteers are ineffective as they pose data security risks and are unreliable and inconsistent. “It takes months to train them and then they leave!”

Westover’s media specialist, Sean Hutchinson, felt his “position is not valued.” He asked his students for responses about his impact on them in a Google Form. In the end, he received 142 responses.

One student said, “my favorite activity this year was sharing time with you and using Chromebooks so I can learn how to use them for when I grow up.”

Strawberry Hill’s media specialist, Tara Wilcox, recently got to see the newly-built media center in her school. She told her peers “If I lose my job, I am moving so my kids can go to a school with a media specialist.”  

She asked how we could promote our magnet schools to kids outside of Stamford without specialists.

Amy Ofiero, special education facilitator at Turn of River, spoke about the importance of Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for our special needs students. Ofiero said that they are a “complex legal & clerical obligation” and “there is an ever-growing increase in the need for special ed compliance.”

The budget proposed getting rid of IEP Compliance Officers and having administrators be claimed to do their jobs. Ofiero criticized this as a short-sighted decision because this “will create a larger deficit by adding to legal costs” She instead suggested getting money from community donors and partners, and from sick bank donations because, “if people are willing to give a little, we will gain a lot.”

Another speaker commented that IEP Compliance Officers are “the frontline of defense against rising special ed costs.” She told the audience that “special ed can be highly litigious” and “a mistake can cost SPS for years.” If we get rid of the officers, it “signals open season for attorneys to come after us with requests we can’t handle.”

Turn Of River Assistant Principal Robert Biko believes, “you never take a second of a students time for granted” and that “education is the most honorable profession anyone can do.” By cutting essentials from the budget, we are telling students “for one year, we can’t provide for their needs.” He then went on to add that, “we need to make families know we are here for them.”

Biko also commented on a proposal to shorten the IEP working schedule, and said it would “impact us being ready when we start a year.” He relies on IEP Officers to make sure the district supports his school’s choices in regards to special needs students.

Strawberry Hill Principal Frank Rodriguez told the audience he would “sacrifice a furlough day—or even two days—so [his] media specialist gets to use her new building.” He said he would even forgo his raise for the upcoming year. Rodriguez asked the district to “concentrate on the core” and suggested cutting after-school activities, instrumental music for elementary schools, and extra pay opportunities for staff.

Scofield English Teacher Lee Ann Heller expressed her fear that “we will never get specialists back” if we were to cut them now. She is losing extra pay opportunities because of these cuts, including after school pay and pay for curriculum writing. She asked the district to reign in maintenance and custodial overtime and fees. “Teachers shouldn’t be surprised by extra costs,” she stated, and thus suggested making systemic changes.

Heller said she is unwilling to tell other staff members to “see extra time as a growth opportunity.”

She is in the process of getting her third teaching degree, and after 20 years of teaching and taking advantage of many extra pay opportunities, she is just now getting close to making $100,000.

Michael Rinaldi also agreed to forgo his raise for the upcoming school year.

SHS Athletic Director Christopher Passamano said he doesn’t need a raise next year or need a larger athletic budget. Passamano discussed the importance of his department in the hopes that the district wouldn’t decrease its funding for athletics. He noted his role of “overseeing the biggest organization within schools;” Westhill and Stamford athletic programs serve 1200 kids per school. Unlike other positions, he has 280 work days a year. Passamano mentioned that he has other suggestions for the type of cuts to make, and explained his intention to discuss them with Lucero in private.

SHS media para Linda Marchisio suggested we push the plan to implement block scheduling back a few years considering how it requires a special form of professional development which thus requires money for training.

Other suggestions included practicing sustainability in schools, having people donate clothing and cardboard that we can sell to companies, being paid to haul trash and recycling, cutting professional development days, and eliminating the second principal at Roxbury.

One speaker mentioned that the facilities manager of ABP Construction, who was handling mold complaints in Stamford schools, should have been held financially responsible for allowing the issue to get so far out of hand.

Lucero responded that the district is investigating the possibility of suing ABP, but she has declined to comment on the basis for the case in that forum.