Students support laid-off Tunkhannock teachers
A rally at Tunkhannock Area draws backing for teachers who are losing their jobs.
Last Modified: April 16. 2013 3:33PM
TUNKHANNOCK – Incoming senior Cheyenne Hunsinger mixed laughter and tears as she praised teachers, some of whom never taught her, all of whom touched her life: The science teacher with a pet mole, the coach who was “always there for us,” the ninth-grade algebra teacher at whom Hunsinger paused, beamed, and said simply, “a great year.”
“The school board needs to realize what great people they are furloughing,” Hunsinger said, prompting a roar of applause from a crowd gathered Friday outside the Tunkhannock Area School District administration building to protest a budget that cuts 32 teaching jobs – on top of 24 lost through attrition last school year.
With many of the 32 teachers standing pensively in a nearby line, union leaders elicited chants of “enough is enough” and “bring them back” from a crowd of 200 or more. But it was students like Hunsinger who evoked tears and hugs from the teachers losing their jobs.
“We got where we are because of you,” senior class President Nick Ide said, adding “I’m truly sorry” before turning to hug the furloughed teachers.
In cutting the jobs, incoming senior Marlena Chesner said, “The school board may have been prepared to deal with the teachers, but they were not prepared to deal with the students.” The crowd cheered again, and Chesner added, “We love our teachers so much!” before turning to hug them.
After her speech, Chesner said she still hoped to go on to college and major in communications “despite the fact that all our broadcasting programs might be cut.”
Special education teacher Kristy Buchman, a track coach who found herself repeatedly lauded by the students, stood with fellow furloughed teachers Sheri Brown and Victory Borel, holding back tears. “It’s not just coaching, they are losing counselors, class advisers, they cut junior high sports,” Buchman said.
Local union President Christa Burke said the cuts came despite a “Memorandum of Understanding” signed when the teachers agreed to a partial pay freeze in 2011-12. The union contends that memorandum included language guaranteeing that, in exchange for the pay freeze, teachers would be assured there would be no layoffs until the two sides sat down and worked out a “successor agreement” this fall.
The union is filing a grievance contending the district breached that deal, and signing the grievance was part of Friday’s rally.
The union is also trying to find out how the district is justifying the furloughs to meet state law. This year’s cuts come on top of 24 positions left unfilled through retirements and resignations last year, and three or four people leaving this year who will not be replaced. In a district with 232 teachers at the start of the cuts, Burke noted that’s roughly a 25 percent reduction in two years.
Pennsylvania State Education Association Regional Director John Holland said he believes the cuts may violate state laws limiting the justifications for teacher layoffs. “This is really for economic reasons,” Holland said, “And state law bars furloughs for economic reasons.”
The law allows layoffs due to sharp enrollment declines, curtailment of education programs on the recommendation of the superintendent and approval of the school board as a result of declining enrollment, consolidation of schools or creation of a new district as a result of reorganization of other districts.
State records show the district’s enrollment has not dropped by the 25 percent cut in teacher staff. In 2009-10, total enrollment was 2,839; in 2011-12, it was 2,736, a bit more than a 7 percent decline.
State Department of Education spokesman Timothy Eller said the state has not received any request from Tunkhannock Area School District regarding the furloughs, and that no prior state approval would be required as long as the furloughs were for the reasons spelled out in the law.
Burke noted district administrators had taken a vacation day and were not in the building behind them, a claim confirmed with a trip through the building. The offices of Superintendent Michael Healey and Assistant Superintendent Ann Way were closed and dark.
Despite heat climbing into the 90s and a bright sun heating the parking lot tarmac, the crowd remained supportive throughout the rally that lasted more than an hour. Students and adults held up signs reading “You can’t put students first if we put teachers last; “I deserve the attention I need to learn, 26-plus students in a class is too many,” and “Admin. Pay raises plus 32 furloughs = a sad future.”
Parker Robinson, 7, pushed his sign high in the air through much of the rally: “You furloughed my hero.” Asked who his hero was, he demurred, but mom Tiffany said he loved his art teacher, Krista Truesdale.