CLAYTON — Toward the beginning of the month, eight teachers in the Thousand Islands Central School District were told they may potentially lose their jobs next school year. Rather than being an issue of funding, these layoffs are being proposed as an option by the district due to declining student enrollment, officials said.
The positions span from elementary to high school level, and without them, the district may not be able to offer college courses, electives and some special education services. Some vacant positions also may not be filled. As of right now, the layoffs are just a proposal, but could become a harsh reality if another solution is not found and implemented.
The Thousand Islands Central School District’s Board of Education meeting Tuesday evening drew a larger crowd than most, with a crowd of protesters just outside the door to make their feelings known with regard to the eight teaching jobs in jeopardy.
“I never thought that I would agree to cut teaching positions, and it’s crushing on every level,” said board President Erik Swenson. “My personal feeling is that if we as a board had done our jobs and made these cuts through attrition over the last several years, we’d likely have avoided much of our current situation. I’ll own that personally, but apologies are petty and shallow if you’re one of the people being put in the most difficult position of your career.”
While the district is hoping to start reducing by attrition, meaning things like voluntary retirement rather than involuntary layoffs, some layoffs may still take place, Superintendent Michael Bashaw Jr. said, or positions might be retained with a reduction in hours if the district decides the action is necessary moving forward.
For the 2005-06 school year, the district had a total of 1,138 students enrolled. Ten years later, for the 2015-16 school year, that enrollment number had dipped to 966. Now, for 2020-21, the district has 788 students enrolled for the year, meaning the district has lost a total of 350 students over the past 16 years.
Currently, TI has 88 members of its teaching staff. The possible layoffs could affect two elementary positions and six others across the middle school and high school. These positions range from special education to social studies.
“We have attempted other remedies for the situation which have helped to postpone what now seems to be inevitable,” Mr. Bashaw said. “We have reduced the number of class periods and offered a greater number of classes. Unfortunately, the result has been a further reduction in class sizes which is compounded by a continued drop in enrollment.”
Mr. Bashaw recalled that a number of years ago, there were layoffs in the district, but a number of those positions returned in successive years. He said the administration and district Board of Education have been monitoring the decline in enrollment for years.
The high school started in 2005-06 with enrollment at 350. Today it’s below 250. In 2005-06, district enrollment was 1,138. From 2013-14 until 2021, it dropped every single year across the district. Mr. Bashaw said the district has lost the equivalent of Cape and Guardino schools in the last 16 years.
According to the most recent U.S. News and World Report Best High Schools Report, overall, the Thousand Islands student-to-teacher ratio is 12:1.
“It isn’t a waste of taxpayer money to offer small class sizes; if four or five students can earn college credit and save families tens of thousands of dollars overall, these courses should be offered,” Mr. Kendall said. “It isn’t a waste of taxpayer money to offer elective courses; if a student isn’t strong in math or science, they should have options for electives in current events or personal finance.”
The proposed 2021-22 budget for Thousand Islands is $22,922,490 — a decrease of $435,152, or 1.86%, from the previous year. The decrease of $435,152 comes from an aggregate of multiple changes within the budget and does not reflect what the district would save should it cut these positions. Teacher salaries and benefits comprise 63% of the 2021-22 budget.
A budget hearing has been scheduled for May 4, followed by a budget vote from 2 to 9 p.m. May 18. The vote will include a proposition to establish a capital reserve fund not to exceed $6 million, as well as a proposition to fund an additional $7,500 to each of the three libraries in the district for a total library levy of $250,000.
The district’s proposed property tax gap remains at 2.81% for the 2021-22 school year.
If the budget is voted down, there are three options. Option one: the district can offer the same budget unchanged for a second vote. Or, the district may build a new budget and present it for a second vote. The third option is the district can adopt a contingency budget. Mr. Bashaw said that normally, a contingency budget in a school district is something to be incredibly feared because it means you really can’t make ends meet and you’re looking at significant cuts. With the district already looking at a 0% proposed tax increase, he said that contingency budget is not such a fear factor and is something to be considered.
Global studies teacher Wendall Putnam said that Tuesday was the worst day he has had since being in the district. He told the board that TI is not going in the right direction and considering the reductions was wrong.
Ryan Kendall graduated from Thousand Islands High School with the dream to come back and teach there, a dream which was realized about nine years ago. Currently, he’s the 11th-grade U.S. History, Advanced Placement U.S. History, AIS History and Modern World teacher. Joining with a few of his colleagues Tuesday evening, Mr. Kendall gave an emotional speech to the board.
“Thanks to New York state, schools are fully funded for the coming year; this is our chance to make up for things we’ve lost in past years — courses, additional support services, and so much more,” he said. “I can appreciate that school districts have a need to be fiscally responsible, but this is our chance to do better, not to cut to bare bones. My fear is that TI will lose everything that makes TI great. The Thousand Islands Central School District is not just a factory cranking out products as cheap as possible; we are building the future of our communities.”
In addition to students, both past and present, as well as teachers and taxpaying community members gathering to make their thoughts known at the district Board of Education meeting Tuesday evening, a group of high school students organized a walkout during their classes Wednesday morning.
Braving the snow and less than ideal spring temperature, they made their way to the turf and stayed as long as the cold and their schedules would allow — about 25 minutes — to show their displeasure with the situation.
Junior Noelan Dombach has taken classes with one of the teachers whose jobs are in question in the past, is learning from one currently and was looking forward to having two more next year. He estimates that he and a total of a little more than 100 of his fellow students turned out Wednesday morning.
“I find protesting this is important because our words can be helpful in keeping these amazing teachers,” he said. “I don’t think this is right. ... Teachers like Mr. Kendall are important members of our school and our community; he has helped me a lot this year and I would love nothing more than to see him at that school for the next ten years.”
Planning to hold a sit-in in the school auditorium Thursday morning, the students of Thousand Islands are determined to continue with peaceful protests until their voices are heard.