Bright colored signs bob above the crowd. Then they are pressed up against the windows, making a statement to those inside. The bright signs ask silently, “What’s up Doc?”
At the Tredyffrin/Easttown School Board’s April 23 meeting at district offices, more than 63 students and 122 teachers, as well as 274 total community members, signed into the meeting. The main meeting room was standing room only, and the lobby, hallway and both overflow viewing rooms were all packed. The high attendance was in response to a proposed district budget strategy of demoting some of the district’s highest paid teachers.
“We can get as mad as we want about teachers demotions but if we don’t [go to the board meetings] and express our views in the forum that they put out for us then nothing is really going to get accomplished,” said senior Kelsey Sheronas, who was one of 17 students to formally address the board at the meeting.
2008 ’Stoga grad Saketh Bhamidipati and juniors Surabhi Ghai, Connie Yang and Anu Garikipati prepare to speak before the school board at its April 23 meeting. More than 60 students attended the meeting to show their disapproval of proposed teacher demotions. Photos: Luke Rafferty and Mary Turocy/The SPOKE
Many of the students in attendance were part of an organized Facebook event or group, titled “Protest the demotion of teachers at the school board meeting” and “School Board Rebellion” respectively. As of April 30, 263 students responded that they were attending the school board meeting, though not all went. Three hundred thirty-three people were members of the Facebook group. A change. org petition titled “T/E School Board should cancel proposition to demote teachers,” has 484 signatures.“I was actually surprised because I didn’t think it would become as big an issue as it did but it really caught on,” said junior Anu Garikipati, who started the Facebook event.
Students also made a number of “What’s up Doc?” signs for the meeting, and distributed fliers at school with an unofficial and estimated list of teachers who could be demoted. Garikipati, along with junior Karolis Panavas and freshman Robert Tang, lead most of the initiatives, but senior Nick Laganelli started the “School Board Rebellion” group.
Junior Siavash Zamani, freshmen Liudas Panavas and Chris Doms and juniors Adam Whitaker and Michael Rycyzyn hold up posters they made to support teachers who face demotion.
Also at the meeting, ’Stoga parent David Levine donated $5,300 to the district for the 53 years that he, his wife and his children—one of whom is sophomore Noah Levine— have attended school in T/E. 2008 ’Stoga graduate Saketh Bhamidipati expressed his concern at the prospect of teacher demotions, explaining how physics teacher and PhD Robert DeSipio taught him advanced physics during his free periods.School board president Karen Cruickshank was aware of the growing social media movement thanks to her son, freshman Nick Cruickshank. She said that the level of student support against proposed teacher demotions shows what an impact T/E teachers have on their students.
“It was heartwarming, it was reaffirming, and for me all the more heartbreaking that we’re faced with this awful position of having to look at things like eliminating bussing or teachers who have been around for a long time or specials or sports,” Cruickshank said. “These are all the things we’re looking at right now and none of it is good.”
Principal Amy Meisinger encourages students to continue to be informed.
“I’m pleased that [students] feel strongly about their own education and the quality of education,” Meisinger said. “I think it speaks to the quality of the schools here that they are willing to get involved and be active in voicing their opinions.”
Teacher demotions, which would save the district a projected $640,000, have been the root of the social-media-fueled reaction by students.
“It’s one of the strategies that was put on the table and last year you may remember it was on the table as well,” Superintendent Dan Waters said. “And demotions were put in place for about eight TEEA members and the union came back to the board and offered—as you heard it [at the meeting]—pay reduction or pay delay for half a year in lieu of the board putting the demotions in place.”
Community member and TEEA teacher Wendy Prothero (right) reads remarks from TEEA president Laura Whittaker. Whittaker was not permitted to speak at the meeting because she is not a T/E resident.
T/E Education Association (TEEA) president Laura Whittaker declined to comment for this story, but union members distributed literature at last Monday’s meeting.
“In lieu of demotions, the Board should return to the bargaining table and join with us to help develop solutions to our financial issues while preserving the excellent educational program that we have all worked so hard to create,” the statement read.
Some students felt strongly that demoting teachers would harm the prestigious reputation that ’Stoga has, which attracts many families to T/E.
“I feel that one of the things that makes this school the school that it is is the teachers that we have and I felt that the school board even considering that they might demote PhD teachers and high salary teachers would ruin the education for students in the future,” Garikipati said.
School board president Karen Cruickshank listens to a student during the public comment period.
Junior Connie Yang, who spoke at the meeting, said that she went to the school board meeting to understand why the board would propose teacher demotions.
I learned “about what a tough position our school district is in financially right now,” she said. “Just from going to the meeting I definitely got to know the school board’s position more and I don’t think they’d take this step unless absolutely they had no other path to choose.”
Junior Joe Scuteri has been serving as a student representative on the school board for the past year, giving him a different view of the budget situation.
“Obviously I don’t want to see any of my teachers being demoted,” Scuteri said. But “I understood what the board was dealing with and that they were trying everything possible and that was probably one of their last resorts.”
According to Scuteri, now that students have gotten involved they should write legislators to back up what they said at the school board meeting. In recent years, the state has decreased its funding for education and passed laws limiting how much a school board can raise taxes without public consent.
As T/E moves into the final stages of its budget decisions, the student social media groups are still active. Though students have voiced opinions on budget strategies in the past, many had not been to a school board meeting until last Monday.
“It just showed that if we don’t agree with things that the school board does we can express our disagreement and actually possibly make a change,” Yang said. “This has led us to cross that line and brought us together more.”
Cruickshank said that the school board has been trying to alert the public to T/E’s current financial crisis, which mirrors that of most districts across the state, for the past three years.
“I would continue to implore the students, the members of our community, our teachers, everybody to chip in and help us find a solution for this problem,” Cruickshank said.
“If we don’t agree with things that the school board does we can express our disagreement and actually possibly make a change. This has led us to cross that line and brought us together more.”
-Junior Connie Yang
The board will discuss the budget strategy of teacher demotions at its May 7 Finance Committee meeting in a continued effort to alleviate a remaining deficit of $1.5 million and present the state with a balanced budget in June.
Freshman Peter Brown, who was a part of the social media movement, spoke at the meeting about how his German teacher and PhD Kevin Nerz has influenced him. As he spoke in German like Nerz taught him, Brown was brought to tears by the thought of his teacher being demoted.
“What we need to show as a group, to the school board, is that we care about what’s going on as a student body because it’s directly affecting us,” Brown said. “If there’s ever a time that students need to be involved with school board policy it’s now.”