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Parents, staff argue against school choice program

By Staff | Jan 27, 2009

Cape Coral residents spoke before the Lee County School Board on Tuesday night to express their dissatisfaction with some decisions the board has made to deal with the loss of funding from the state.
Members of the community specifically asked why the district continues to laud its school choice program when ditching the system for “neighborhood schools” could save millions within a $50 million transportation budget.
Batch 1 enrollment for the school choice program began Monday and will also act as a litmus test for this year’s student enrollment.
Some teachers also were upset they did not hear about a potential pay cut earlier than the public workshop on Friday where Superintendent James Browder introduced his five-year plan to deal with budget cuts.
The plan could result in as many as 600 layoffs and a 3 percent decrease in pay for all district employees, including school board members and the superintendent, as well as the reduction of school-related programs such as athletics, art and music.
Mariner High School teacher Dianne Mahlman spoke before the board and said she wished the district had notified staff earlier and held a workshop at a more convenient time for more staff to attend.
“I feel unappreciated that I wasn’t treated like a professional from the school district,” said Mahlman. “Why did I have to find out about a teacher survey regarding a 3 percent pay cut in the paper on Saturday?”
Mahlman explained that she should have received a 6 percent increase this year because of her salary step, but took the 3 percent raise after district negotiations in December. Furthermore, she said the district could save funding if they disassembled the school choice program.
“Now we are faced with higher insurance premiums, so much for that 3 percent raise,” she said. “Forget school choice and opt for neighborhood schools.”
Cape parent Sherry Schumaker said she wanted a school within two miles for her son, but the school choice lottery system awarded her son his sixth choice, a school more than five miles away that requires busing.
“The bus system is out of control and all of our money is going to transportation,” she said. “Go to neighborhood schools and then open school choice after that.”
Discussions around modifying school choice have ranged from eliminating the system outright to altering it so students in high school would have choice while those in elementary and middle school would attend neighborhood schools.
According to Browder, the district is too large to employ a neighborhood schools system and the issue of courtesy busing — where students who need a ride but live within two miles of the school — would require $4 million per year as it did in 1995 before the district adopted school choice.
Browder added that 91 percent of parents received their first choice school during last year’s enrollment.
He said that ending school choice would not only disproportionately affect minority neighborhoods, but also a transition to neighborhood schools would cost the district between $6 million and $10 million each year.
“The deal is, I stand for children and I’m not going to boundaries because I don’t think it’s the right thing for kids,” Browder said. “Are you willing to go back to racial segregation and isolate the poorest children in the same schools?”
John Traube, a Cape resident, brought up the issue of Browder’s contract and $342,000 severance package. He said the superintendent should sacrifice along with district employees who may see a decrease in pay.
“This gentleman who declines an ethics provision in his contract has another word that he likes, and that is greed,” said Traube.