Groton superintendent dares council to 'have the guts' to reaffirm school cut

People fill the room behind Kim Watson, chair of the Board of Education, left, and Susan Austin, assistant superintendent, and members of the Groton Board of Education during a meeting of the Groton Town Council with the board at the Groton Town Hall Anex Wednesday, April 19, 2017.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
People fill the room behind Kim Watson, chair of the Board of Education, left, and Susan Austin, assistant superintendent, and members of the Groton Board of Education during a meeting of the Groton Town Council with the board at the Groton Town Hall Anex Wednesday, April 19, 2017. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Groton — A town councilor cried openly and the schools superintendent challenged the council to vote again on its $5.2 million education cut, saying, “I want to hear five people say you’re going to screw the kids again.”

Superintendent Michael Graner's comment and Deborah Peruzzotti's tears came as the Board of Education met with councilors Wednesday night to discuss the impact of the cut on the school district.

Graner said he would have to close Pleasant Valley Elementary School, lay off 37 teachers, eliminate 12 paraprofessionals, cut his curriculum administrators, eliminate interscholastic sports in the middle schools, cut school-sponsored field trips, reorganize the middle schools and institute pay-to-play for high school sports.

He would also cut by 15 percent the budgets used by individual schools to pay for paper, books and supplies. Graner added that he has only been able to identify $4.5 million in cuts so far.

Peruzzotti, who was absent from the earlier vote to cut the education budget, broke down and wept openly. 

“We’ve been trying so desperately to work together and I’m crushed that I cannot bring this up," she said. "I can’t even say any more.”

Graner met with 100 parents and children from Pleasant Valley Elementary School on Tuesday to discuss closing the school. He planned to notify 90 teachers on Monday that their contracts would be terminated. Teachers are already leaving the district because of the cuts, he said.

He urged the council to reconsider the vote and “have the guts” to look people in the eye and vote again.

“This community is going to rise up in protest and it is going to be on your shoulders,” he said, as the audience applauded and cheered. “I’d like to call for a revote. ... I want to hear five people say you’re going to screw the kids again."

The fire marshal stopped at the meeting and declared it at capacity. Mayor Bruce Flax asked for a break so people could clear the exits.

Councilor Karen Morton said she voted for the cut because people will lose their homes if taxes rise again. She said a lot of people are saying “thank God somebody has the backbone” to stand up for people who can't afford another tax increase.

“It has been suggested by a lot of residents, what are the teachers doing to sacrifice?" Morton said as she was interrupted by calls of “What?!” and “Shut up!”

“Let me finish," she continued. "Has the teachers union offered to take a wage freeze for a year? Have they offered to give up 10 percent of their pay? That would fill several million dollars. I don’t see any sacrifices, I don't hear any sacrifices being made by the teachers, yet you’re all in here criticizing us for what we’re doing,” Morton said. “We didn’t create this mess. It originated in Hartford. ”

Beth Horler, president of the Groton Education Association, said teachers took a high deductible health plan this year which saved the district $600,000.

Board member Rita Volkmann said the towns surrounding Groton suffered cuts in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposed budget too, but those communities chose to ignore the state and not take it out on their schools.

“Not one of them, not one of their town council members or their board of finance did what you are doing to the children,” she said.

 Councilors asked what would happen if the state cut Groton less than suspected or gave the town money back. Graner said it would be too late to fix it.

He said he can’t wait to make decisions because there's too much involved. He said he urged the Board of Education to vote on Monday to close Pleasant Valley School, because “that only gives us eight weeks to try to figure out where 300 children are going to go to school.”

“The train is leaving the station,” Graner said. “It’s not a question of putting money back at some later time.”

Christina Scala, a teacher at Robert E. Fitch High School, said she went to the meeting because she was concerned.

“I feel sort of anxious as far as what it’s going to be like with the kids and the teachers and where we all stand at the end of this,” she said.

Stacey Noreika, a special education teacher at Fitch, said she has three children in the school system and is concerned about class sizes and programs like sports.

“It keeps them busy after school, especially at the middle and high school level, and it ties them to their school outside academics,” she said.

Kelcie Drury, 17, a junior at Fitch, said a lot of students go to college using sports scholarships.

“It makes it more difficult for them if they can’t afford to play (sports),” she said.

High school is about discovering yourself, but if you can’t try different sports because you can’t pay, then you lose that opportunity, she said.

Even if the town ends up cutting a relatively small amount, Graner said the damage is done.

“The word is out, throughout the state, that Groton is dismantling its school system,” he said. “And it just breaks my heart.”

The council will discuss the budget again on Friday at 6:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Annex. 

d.straszheim@theday.com

 

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