Students plug for teacher

TUPPER LAKE – About 20 students showed up to a school board meeting Wednesday night to protest the potential layoff of a favored teacher.

When the students were given a chance to speak at the meeting, senior Lukas Matthews cut to the chase: The group wanted to know why middle/high school social studies teacher Scott Tower might be laid off.

School district leadership is faced with cutting about $262,000 from its 2013-14 budget after residents of the district voted down a spending plan that would have increased the tax levy by 8.35 percent. District officials have said it may be tough to make those kind of cuts without laying off some staff.

District Superintendent Seth McGowan told the students he isn’t allowed to talk about specific employees, just as he wouldn’t talk publicly about specific students. He did say that if layoffs happen, it doesn’t have anything to do with a teacher’s performance.

“No one teacher is targeted, certainly, ever in these decisions,” McGowan said.

Senior Christine Kelly called Tower an outstanding teacher and said it was a disappointment when she and her classmates heard his job might be on the chopping block. Madison Kelly, also a senior, said she has a number of other teachers who aren’t as professional, and Matthews agreed, saying he could think easily of a handful of teachers who don’t deserve to keep their job as much as Tower does.

School board President Dan Mansfield told the students that the school has to go through a process dictated by unions and seniority when deciding whom to lay off.

“There is no way that the school can just arbitrarily lay off people that they think are the worst teachers or keep the best teachers,” Mansfield said. “That’s not the world we live in. They would be fought in the union, they would be fought by the state under civil service laws. It’s just not going to happen.”

He noted that it’s not easy to judge a teacher.

He told the students he believes they will get through it even if Tower is laid off.

“If he does end up getting laid off, feel for him and shake his hand, because that’s what’s really important, because you’re never going to have everything you want,” Mansfield said.

Reached this morning by phone, Tower said he had no idea the students were planning to advocate on his behalf.

“It certainly feels nice to know that (I) had a positive impact on the kids I’ve taught,” Tower told the Enterprise. “I feel like these are kind of like my kids. I’ve had a lot of them since seventh grade, and I’ve coached them, and I’ve had them in class. And they just feel like they’re my kids, and it’s nice to know that they stand up for you when you need it.”

Tower said he was told by the district’s administration Wednesday morning that his job could be cut, and he let the varsity baseball team he coaches know about it at their end-of-the-season meeting after school Wednesday.

“I just felt like I owed it to them,” Tower said. “I just let them know, and I had no idea that they would actually go and protest like that.”

Tower said it’s unfortunate the school district’s residents voted the budget down.

“There’s going to be a lot of really good teachers that are affected also,” Tower said. “I fully understand that when you have to make up that kind of money, rather than make it up with programs with the kids, we understand that you have to make it up with faculty and the teachers. And it’s just one of those unfortunate things that happens when the economy is not doing so well.”

Other concerns

At the school board meeting, the students had other concerns about the budget as well. Christine Kelly asked what will happen if there are layoffs. She said she has a learning disability and is worried about it being harder to concentrate if class sizes grow.

Mansfield said research would support the fact that students in richer districts with smaller classes tend to do better.

“You’re absolutely telling the truth,” Mansfield said. “It is what it is, though, unfortunately.”

School board member Dawn Hughes asked the students if they had any ideas for big things that could be cut from the budget.

They said they didn’t but were coming to the board meeting to learn more. Matthews told school officials he believes the students should be allowed to have a say in the budget.

“I honestly think the students should have a vote on what should be cut and what should not be cut,” Matthews said. “It’s not your guys’ education. It’s ours.”

“I truly understand that, and I will cut that off there,” Mansfield said. “Unfortunately, that’s not how it is.”

Mansfield said it’s up to the taxpayers to decide the district’s spending priorities. He told the students that state law prohibits the students from making the decisions.

School board members told the students to tell their parents to vote yes to the next budget and to spread the word via signs.

McGowan told the students he would be happy to open up the auditorium this afternoon after school is dismissed and let students ask any questions they want about what’s going on in the district. He said it would be easier to talk with them off the record.

“No question is off the table,” McGowan said. “I can’t promise that I’ll answer it, because of confidentiality, but you feel free to ask me anything that you want.”