Students protest as O’Fallon school board prepares to review cuts

School District 203’s school board has called an emergency meeting for Thursday night after the school board voted earlier this week to cut $1 million from next year’s budget.

The proposed cuts prompted hundreds of students to walk out of classes on Thursday, arguing that the cuts will hurt their education.

The District 203 School Board previously approved a deficit-reduction plan that will reduce O’Fallon Township High School’s teaching staff in the 2017-18 school year, among other cuts. During tonight’s meeting, the board will review that plan, and board members could decide to revise it, according to the meeting agenda.

The cuts include the elimination of the early bird, or zero hour, program and teacher staff reductions. Many students, particularly seniors and athletes, take early bird classes, which begin at 7 a.m.

“We are fighting for our education,” said Morgan Barnum, one of the student protesters at OTHS’ Smiley campus.

“We’re fighting for our teachers, our friends,” said Logan Bradford, another student protestor.

O’Fallon police had a presence during the peaceful protest, which OTHS School Resources Officer Jay Spanley said was there “to keep the students and everyone involved safe.”

Students initially were gathered around the main entrance of OTHS, located at 600 S. Smiley St., chanting phrases like “Benway for unemployment” and, “don’t take our teachers.” The reference was to District 203 Superintendent Darcy Benway.

Surrounded by a sea of students, Martha Weld, OTHS assistant superintendent, attempted to address student protester concerns about why cuts to their programs and teachers are being made.

“If the amount of revenue you have coming into your home all of a sudden went down and you have 10 items on your list and you needed to cut something, correct, then you have to make the painful decisions about what to cut. So what we have been doing for the last eight years is making those decisions,” Weld told the students.

When asked how is it that the students are able to remain on school property but not attend classes during school hours, Benway replied, “They’re not supposed to but I can’t stop them.”

“Certainly we don’t condone students missing school, missing their classes, but we do understand and respect their rights to protest. If they want to protest, we are trying to encourage them to do their civic duty in a respectful and organized manner,” Benway said.

The protest lasted about an hour, and the number of student protesters decreased over the course of the hour.

While about 100 students participated, others backed out “because they’re afraid of not being able to walk in graduation and not being able to go to prom,” Morgan said.

According to the OTHS student handbook, skipping school in groups is not the same as one student skipping because it creates unique problems. Therefore, the penalty will not be the same but will be determined by the circumstances surrounding the incident. The penalties range from suspension to seniors possibly losing the privilege of participating in the graduation ceremony.

“The teachers are with us on this, they just can’t be out here with us because they are scared their job will be on the line, too. Even some of our teachers told us they wouldn’t mark us tardy as long as its peaceful,” said student Julie Jordan.

Among the changes to next year’s budget that the board previously approved are:

▪  Reductions in certified teaching staff equivalent to 8.4 full-time positions, including the equivalent of 6.8 full-time positions in classroom sections. Guidance and library staff are also affected by the reductions.

▪  Reductions in certified administrators equivalent to 1 full-time position.

▪  Reductions in non-certified personnel equivalent to 5 full-time positions.

▪  Increase in athletic fees from $100 per participant to $175 per participant.

▪  Increase in textbook and registration fees from $150 per student to $175 per student.

▪  Reduction of $93,000 in the district’s operating budgets.

▪  Elimination of the school’s early bird, or zero hour, program.

The emergency meeting starts at 5:30 p.m. in the multipurpose room of the O’Fallon Township High School Smiley campus. The board will speak privately in an executive session at the start of the meeting before considering the deficit-reduction plan.

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