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Delta School students, staff plead for school board to save their school

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MASSENA - Nearly 50 students and staff from the Massena Central School District’s Delta School of Choice, as well as some parents, pleaded with board of education members Tuesday night to save their school, which is on the chopping block for the 2013-14 school year.

Wearing shirts that read “Save Delta,” and carrying signs that said, “Hear My Story,” the students took turns telling board members what the school has meant to them and what it would mean to them if they no longer had it available.

Some of them were in tears as they described their experiences in the program and shared their concern about what would happen without the school, which was formerly known as the Alternative Education School.

Student Justice Montoya related how she had been expelled from the junior high as an eighth grader because of her failing grades and fighting. But, when she became part of the Delta School of Choice, Ms. Montoya said her life turned around.

She said that, when she arrived at the Delta School of Choice, her teachers initially didn’t want her there because of what they had heard about her. But her life took a turn for the better because of the attention she got from the staff at the school.

“Everything changed. I started getting 90s. I changed,” she said, breaking down as she told the board, “I don’t want this school closed. It’s changed me. It’s really devastating. You’re going to close it, and I don’t want you to. If you keep it, I swear you guys are not going to regret it.”

Student Brooke Vari, a senior, said that she would be graduating this year thanks to the Delta School of Choice.

“I felt at home. I feel happier,” she said, noting everyone in her family had dropped out of school.

While in the general education classroom setting, Ms. Vari said it was difficult to even think about going to school.

“When I came to the high school, I had no friends. I would wake up every morning and think I’m going to go to school, and I’m going to get bullied,” she said.

But the Delta School of Choice changed that, and she will be receiving her diploma in June and attending SUNY Canton in the fall.

While Ms. Vari said she would not be returning to Massena Central next year, her sister will, and she was concerned about her sibling and other students.

“She’s a great person, and she deserves a great education,” she said.

Some of the students shared their concerns about what would happen to them in the general education classroom setting.

“A lot of us are going to get picked on. A lot of us area already getting messed with,” one student said.

Another student told board members that going to school “was a nightmare” because she was picked on by other students.

“If I didn’t come to Delta, I would have dropped out,” she said, a sentiment echoed by other students who stood at the podium to address the board.

Once she arrived at the Delta School of Choice, “everybody greeted me with open arms and we became friends,” the student said.

One parent said the students in the Delta School of Choice were there because they needed the extra help that the teachers could provide in a smaller classroom setting, something they would not get in the general education setting.

“They don’t succeed in a traditional school system. They need smaller classrooms and more one-on-one,” she said.

“You’ve given them hope. You have through this program changed the mentality and culture of all of these students who think they’re gong to graduate and go on to college. Can we take that away from the kids?” she said, asking the students to stand up. “Look in their eyes. Can you look at these children and fail them? You are taking their lives and killing their hope.”

She suggested that, by cutting the school, the board was “setting them up for failure. That’s unacceptable. There are different programs that could be moved (to make up the cost).”

Some of those in the audience took board of education members to task, saying they had never visited the school and didn’t know how it operated.

“You guys don’t know how our school runs because we never saw you guys at our school,” one student said.

“What disturbs me ifsyou people making the decision never visited the school,” former board President Julie Reagan said.

“I wonder if your mind would change if each one of you had a child in this school. I think it’s politics,” Brian Binan said.

Some suggested cutting staff, but not the entire school. But board members said that wasn’t an option. Loren Fountaine said the majority of the principals had suggested cutting the school, and board President John Boyce said he was told the program wouldn’t work if cuts were made.

Teacher Joseph Mittiga suggested the money could be found somewhere, including additional use of the district’s fund balance. Although the board has already adopted the budget, he said his understanding was that they were allowed to modify it seven days before the vote, which will be on Tuesday.

“You could get together tonight, propose changes and adopt the changes,” Mr. Mittiga said. “I think it’s worth taking a second look.”

Mr. Boyce said he had already checked with the school’s legal counsel and was told they could not “alter the bottom line dollar amount.”

“We can change the spending plan if we bring in $800,000 and cut somewhere,” but could not use additional money from the fund balance, Mr. Boyce said he was told.

Staff members from the school told board members they weren’t concerned about their jobs, but rather the future of the students once the school was closed.

“I’m begging you not to close the school. I can find another job. I’m not worried about myself,” Van Alexander said.

“I just want to know what you’re going to do to help these guys transition,” Darcy LaBarge said, volunteering to come in and assist with the move. “I will do what I need to do to come in and help them get acclimated. I’m not worried about another job. I’m worried about them.”

The Delta School of Choice was among the casualties of cuts in the 2013-14 Massena Central School District budget, which calls for the elimination of 29.25 full-time equivalent positions to save approximately $1.77 million.

Three other positions were eliminated through attrition and retirement; 1.5 positions were replaced with a lower salary; and two positions will be transferred to the St. Lawrence-Lewis Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

Approximately $114,000 will be saved through the elimination of some stipends; and approximately $274,000 will be saved through other means, such as eliminating programs like Learn to Lead, the after-school 3-5 Recovery Plan, the Educational Support Center and the CASPER (Community and School - Education - Recreation) program.

The $46.7 million budget contains $2.3 million in cuts and $3.1 million in reserve fund usage. It carries a 2.9 percent tax levy increase.

Voters will have their say on the spending plan when they head to the polls from 12-8 p.m. Tuesday at the Massena Community Center.

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