Teachers and supporters protest school district plan to cut staff

School district teachers, students and community members picket outside of the Board of Education building. Photo courtesy of Andrea C. Turner.

Cleveland Heights–University Heights City School District teachers, students and community members began "informational picketing" outside of the CH–UH Board of Education building on March 21, to draw attention to the administration's proposed school staffing cuts, to take effect before the beginning of the 2016–17 academic year. The cuts would eliminate 52 staff positions: 17.5 teacher positions at Heights High; 12.5 teacher positions between Roxboro and Monticello middle schools; 15 teachers within the seven elementary schools; plus a total of seven administration and classified (non-teaching) positions.

In a March 18 news release announcing the cuts, the district stated that the reduction in force (RIF) is due to declining student enrollment, and is necessary to bring staffing numbers in line with actual and projected enrollment, saving the district $3.5 million annually in its operating budget.

According to the district, over the last nine years 900 fewer students have enrolled in district schools, with enrollment dropping from 6,300 in 2007 to 5,400 in 2016. Independent enrollment projections cited by the district suggest that district enrollment will decline by an additional 800 students over the next 10 years.

The picketers showed up each morning, Monday, March 21, though Thursday, March 24—the last day school was in session before spring break.

Two parents of Heights High students, who asked not to be identified, estimated that approximately 100 people stood outside of the Board of Education building at the beginning of the week, with signs stating, "Help Our Students! Save our Teachers!" and "Keep Calm and Keep the Arts" and "Fewer Teachers = Larger Classes."

Scott Wortman, the district’s coordinator of communications, estimated that the number of picketers was closer to 30.

The school district has published a Q-and-A on its website, www.chuh.org, explaining reasons for the cuts, what positions would be affected, and state requirements for projected student caseloads.

According to the Q-and-A, special education caseloads and instructional ratios for teachers serving cross-categorical students will increase slightly, but remain below the standards set by the State of Ohio.

"This is a very difficult but necessary action," stated Talisa Dixon, CH–UH school superintendent, in the March 18 announcement. "This decision was not arrived at easily. However, the CH–UH school district has seen a significant reduction in enrollment in the last decade, and that is projected to continue for several more years. We simply must bring our staffing in line with our enrollment to continue operating effectively."

According to Reaching Heights, the nonprofit that mobilizes community resources to foster highly valued public schools in the CH–UH district, many schools [statewide] have seen lower enrollment due to corresponding drops in population and the increase in charter schools, online options and school vouchers. Every year, school districts assess the number of teachers and staff needed to provide effective education, and every year communities face the results of these difficult decisions. This summer, once retirements and resignations are finalized, and programming decisions are made, some of the laid-off staff may be re-hired.

According to Ari Klein, Heights High math teacher and president of the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union, the high school teachers decided to picket before school hours, and have been joined by some students and parents.

"I do not have any confidence that cutting [this many] positions will result in the same programming or the same attention to student needs. This is a significant cut that is way too deep," Klein said. "I am certain there are places where the impact might not be as severe, but by the time this is figured out, many great teachers will have found employment elsewhere."

"We head in before our workday starts, so no instructional time is lost," said Klein. He stated that several representatives from other district schools, including staff from Oxford and Fairfax elementary schools, showed solidarity through silent protests at their school buildings. They did not picket, but stayed in their cars until the official beginning of their workday, going in and trying to leave together. Klein noted that many teachers typically arrive early and stay later than their prescribed 7.5 hour contract workday.

"The community is struggling to accept the loss of our teachers and staff," commented Krista Hawthorne, director of Reaching Heights. "This year's cuts are deeper than in the recent past, which affect more peoples' lives and raises questions about the staff reduction process and the personnel changes in each of our schools. The district has reassured us that educational programming will remain the same, class sizes will still be well below state maximums and that the district will save $3.5 million. All of that seems reasonable. But, we will dearly miss the people who have taught and cared for our children so well. That's the part that doesn't make sense yet."

Residents will have an opportunity to comment on the proposed RIF at the next school board meeting, on Tuesday, April 5, 7 p.m., at the Board of Education building, 2155 Miramar Blvd., University Heights. Teaching assignments for the 2016–17 school year, to redistribute staff across the district, will be delivered in late April.

Andrea C. Turner

Andrea C. Turner is the Heights Observer managing editor.

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Volume 9, Issue 5, Posted 11:47 AM, 03.29.2016