NAUGATUCK — The meeting was canceled, but the rally went on. Hours before the Board of Education was scheduled to convene Monday night, in an attempt to reconcile its more than $2 million budget shortfall, the school system’s governing body called off the gathering. But that didn’t stop the more than 100 people who planned a demonstration outside Tuttle House from picketing and chanting anyway.
A new community group that calls itself Our Kids Come First organized the rally in protest of a last-resort cost-savings plan proposed last week by Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Tindall-Gibson. The sweeping measure, which would save an estimated $2.26 million, includes cuts to K-8 music, K-6 physical education, K-8 art and freshman sports. Both Tindall-Gibson and members of the board have said they aim to avoid these programming rollbacks.
The mere fact that they are possible, however, has caused hundreds of borough residents to band together.
“What really got me involved was when I heard that [Tindall-Gibson] was thinking about cutting music and art and sports,” said Paul Rotatori, whose mother, sister and sister-in-law have more than 50 years of combined teaching experience in Naugatuck Public Schools. “That’s what got me thinking he’s not right.”
Rotatori was among those taking pictures and soliciting signups for Our Kids Come First’s Facebook group, which as of Tuesday evening was approaching 800 members.
Many of the demonstrators Monday night were students concerned about the future of education in their hometown.
“We really feel strongly about this,” said Naugatuck High School senior Anthony Krueger, who participated in a similar rally before another Board of Ed. meeting last month, “We don’t want anything cut because it would be horrible to younger kids if they have their specials cut because they’re important to them.”
“Those are outlets for peoples’ expression and how they deal with their problems, a lot of times,” echoed NHS junior Josh Aviz.
Krueger said he supports Mayor Bob Mezzo’s cost-savings plan because it includes a personal giveback—five furlough days worth about $1,500—and about $150,000 worth of administrative concessions. While those figures are small in the scheme of the BOE’s deficit, he indicated their symbolic value is large.
The mayor’s plan also calls for Tindall-Gibson and Board of Education Chairwoman Kathleen Donovan to resign, a demand the superintendent has called “political grandstanding.” Borough officials and community members seem divided about whether the pair should step down and whether assigning blame for the budget gap is productive at all.
Students, too, are split.
“It does matter who’s fault it is because somebody dropped the ball, and they need to pick it up,” argued NHS junior Victoria Birong. “And it’s just a horrible situation that they’ve put us in because if everything gets cut then classes have to get larger, and they’re already humongous.”
“To me, it doesn’t matter as much who made the problem,” countered Aviz. “The problem is here; we need to solve the problem before we figure out who did it and stop bickering about who started it. Someone needs to step up to the plate and start swinging.”
Monday’s meeting was postponed, according to Donovan, because the district’s insurance broker, Thomas Kowalchik, had not received by 2:30 p.m. adequate information from Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield to present health insurance options to the board. The Board of Education operates as a self-funded insurance company, and Donovan and board Vice Chairwoman Barbara Lewis have said they believe it is most cost-effective to remain that way. Both the mayor’s proposal and one by the Naugatuck Teachers’ League, however, call for the school system to return to a fully-funded insurance plan.
The board had planned to weigh various health insurance options Monday night, as it tries to adopt an operating budget for the current fiscal year. The meeting has not yet been rescheduled.