Public reacts to district's decision to cut veteran teachers

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By Kellie Parkin

In response to the recent decision to not renew 21 annual contracts of retired or extended DROP teachers, more than seventy visitors crowded into the Levy County School District boardroom Tuesday night.

Meeting attendees included parents, teachers, school administration, and approximately 30 current and former students of Chiefland High School’s calculus teacher Don Stewart. Counting district office staff and board members, more than ninety people were in attendance.

Limited to five minutes time each, members of the public spent more than an hour mostly condemning the district’s action. Cindy Roach, President of Levy County Educators Association spoke first, followed by Stewart, other teachers, parents and students.

CHS 2008 valedictorian James Guerry, who is pursuing a degree in math at the University of Florida, initiated a Web-based effort “SOS – Save Our Stewart” to protest his former math teacher’s non-renewal notice. His MySpace and Flickr postings urged students to attend the meeting. “This is a democracy and it’s time we let them know we won’t stand for it,” he wrote. “A huge attendance would definitely show the school board how strongly we feel.”

Guerry pointed out to Board members that Stewart is the only calculus teacher in the county. “I have not had another teacher who is more skilled,” Guerry said.

He encouraged the Board to reconsider the district action.

“As a business, I think it’s a very poor decision to make - to let your best employees go,” Guerry told the Board. “I would urge you to realize the scale of what this would mean to our schools.”

Parent Debra Kearns expressed appreciation for Stewart’s teaching. “In my family we’ve been with him 15 years. He is not their best friend. He is an inspiration to them. He is a leader to them.”

Bronson Elementary teacher Patty Shewey spoke on behalf of fellow educator Pat Knecht, who received a pink slip. “She is my mentor. There are many of us that look up to her,” she said. “I suggest that you can’t afford to lose her. Pat is the cream of the crop at Bronson Elementary School.”

Board members remained quiet during the public comments. “As a board it’s a very difficult time for us,” said Board Chairman Frank Etheridge when all had finished speaking. “We will try as hard as we can to save…all the teachers.”

Superintendent Bob Hastings said he recognized that teachers were hurt by the district’s action.

“I know that the letter they received was deeply cutting. And I understand that,” he said.

“It is still our obligation to produce a balanced budget,” Hastings said.