Parents upset with school cuts

COVINGTON -- Covington resident Nicole Vanderwolf's daughter loves being a cheerleader at Veterans Memorial Middle School.

But next school year -- her eighth-grade year -- she's not going to be able to cheer for the football or basketball teams at her school.

The Newton County School System announced that it will cut the entire middle school athletic program, as well as at least 165 employee positions, to offset an anticipated $9.7 million budget deficit next school year. More cuts could come, said NCSS Superintendent Steven Whatley.

"She came home (Monday) saying they told her at school that there won't be any middle school sports next year," Vanderwolf said. "She's obviously upset that she won't be able to cheer, but this was the first I heard about this."

Vanderwolf said she understands that the school system needs to make cuts, but she is upset that system officials didn't include parents in any discussions and didn't explain their reasoning.

"It's very disheartening that they aren't soliciting parent feedback ... and the way they just sprang this on us," she said.

More importantly, she doesn't see how they made such a cut to a large and successful program.

"For some kids, (participating in sports) is such an incentive to do well in their academics," Vanderwolf said. "They have that to look forward to."

Steven Livingston, PTO president at Indian Creek Middle School, said in middle school, students are starting to think about high school sports and the kind of scholarships they can get for college.

"Sports is a good way to keep kids motivated because (of) 'no pass, no play,' and if they have bad behavior, they are out," he said.

On Monday, a Facebook group "Save Newton County Teachers & Middle School Sports" was created, and by Tuesday afternoon, had more than 1,300 members.

"It's not fair to the kids or teachers," wrote one parent of a 12-year-old at one NCSS middle school on the group's page. "It's gettin' to (a) point where I wanna home school my kids. ... It's goin' to get to a point where kids are not goin' to want to go to school and I don't blame them."

Parents are speaking out about the elimination of teaching positions and the sports program, especially since booster clubs and parents support many of the teams.

"I can't see how they are saving that much money when parents are investing so much," Vanderwolf said, adding that she's paid $300 for each sport for which her daughter cheers.

Sherri Viniard, director of public relations for NCSS, said Tuesday that NCSS spends more than $100,000 on middle school athletics, which, at this point, are all expected to be eliminated.

"Sports keeps them occupied and off the streets," wrote one person on the Facebook group. "It teaches them how to work together as a team and accomplish goals. The list just goes on."

Other previously announced cuts include the elimination of 611/2 elementary teaching positions, 16 special education teaching positions, 14 part-time paraprofessionals at the elementary level, three high school guidance counselor positions, three high school clerical positions, the graduation coach program the high school level, the attendance bonus program, contributions to retirement plans and health insurance contributions.

Viniard said NCSS is planning to make more than $400,000 in cuts to central office staff in the operations and curriculum departments.

"The administrators are still working out their reorganization and will be meeting this week with those employees affected," she said.

School PTOs also are organizing, and some parents and educators plan to attend the next meeting of the Newton County Board of Education, which is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday in the board room of the BOE building at 2109 Newton Drive N.E. in Covington.

"Parents don't really understand anything," said Livingston, who is organizing his PTO to meet at 2 p.m. Sunday in the school gym. "It's really hard to understand if you're not in the circle."

Livingston said he hopes to explain some of the reasoning behind the cuts and gather opinions regarding what he feels are the most important topics -- the cuts to sports and special needs.

"If teachers aren't there to help, the students are affected in the long run," he said. "If you put a (special needs) child back in the regular class, they are going to be left behind. They can't get it."

He said he also wished Whatley had waited until after the state-required Criterion Referenced Competency Tests, which elementary and middle school students are taking this week and count toward the system's Adequate Yearly Progress, to make the announcement.

"This is coming out right before the biggest week of the entire school year," Livingston said. "They have been training and working on this all year long. Parents are stressed and kids see that and they are stressed. It's just crazy."