Despite two hours of impassioned pleas from school staff, students, parents, and community members unanimously in support of reversing cuts to the education budget the East Hampton Town Council last night moved forward with those cuts, scheduling a budget referendum vote for May 30.
The cuts of almost $800,000 to the Board of Education budget will likely mean the elimination of at least five teaching positions, larger class sizes, and fewer resources for students.
“It’s devastating,” says East Hampton Education Association President Neil Shilansky. “We have an incredible school system, an amazing community, and I’m just so disheartened by the whole thing.”
Shilansky was inspired by the turnout for the meeting, however. Two hundred fifty community members filled the town council chambers and nearly 100 more joined the meeting via Zoom.
“I was very encouraged by the number of people who came out and were so eloquent and compassionate and just spoke from the heart,” he said.
Residents urged the town council to send the budget back to the board of finance for further review and reinstatement of the cuts, but the town council voted 4 to 3 to move the budget with cuts forward to a town vote.
“It’s not about teachers, it’s not about money, it’s about kids and it’s about adolescents—the future of our planet,” said first grade teacher Heather Vigue. “These are future reporters, teachers, future doctors—they’re going to run the planet and we’re going to take away funds from them. We’re not going to give them all the things they need and all the opportunities they deserve when we cut the budget by this much money. So, it’s very upsetting.”
Community turns out with heartfelt appeals
“Two years ago, we were calling teachers superheroes because we didn’t know how to teach our own kids in our homes,” a parent told the town council. “And now we want to fire teachers because we have the collective short-term memory of a dead goldfish.”
“We all know that COVID has taken a massive blow to education. I have a hard time trying to understand how anybody can justify taking money away from our schools when we’re still in the process of recovery,” said East Hampton High School student Enja Barry. “Not only did it affect academic performance, it affected mental health.”
Describing their struggles with mental health concerns, Barry said their teachers have been vital to their recovery. “If it hadn’t been for the countless teachers who have supported me throughout and been so incredibly flexible, I don’t know if I would have ever gotten back on track and been able to come back to school. I’m not asking for your pity or for your empathy. I’m asking you to recognize that my teachers are the ones who had the biggest impact in getting me through that time—these teachers who are on the verge of being cut are teachers who are potentially somebody else’s lifeline.”
“What you see as numbers and line items I see as future doctors, veterinarians, teachers, and yes, even town council members,” said third grade teacher Craig Frost. “I see dreamers, I see the light of hope in the eyes of the youth in this town each and every day I step into Memorial School.”
Saying that East Hampton educators are the ones on the frontlines who know their students and their students’ needs best, Frost asked town council members to consider their legacy. “We’re giving every ounce of our being, of our soul, to ensure that the next generation is prepared to lead with greatness and humility. We will be remembered as doers of deeds. What will you be remembered for? You have the opportunity to be remembered as a courageous hero in this story.”
“When people ask me what the schools are like in East Hampton, I tell them that the teachers are second to none,” said social studies teacher Rachel Mansfield. “Everything else? Well, we have an elementary school that closes randomly for heating issues, a middle school filled with plastic buckets every time it rains, and a high school without enough classrooms for its classes—as well as pay-to-play sports and extracurricular clubs that must be self-funding because there is no money in the budget for them.”
She continued, “The superintendent himself has put forward a budget that does not ask for more. On the contrary, Mr. Smith is asking for the status quo. I know everyone in this room wants so much more than that for our students, but this is the reality of our budgetary situation here in East Hampton. Yet the board of finance is saying, ‘No, once again you must do more with even less.'”
Due to her husband’s military career, a mother said that their three daughters have attended four school districts in three different states and had struggled in each one before arriving in East Hampton.
“Each one of those districts had large class sizes, and all of them failed to identify that my oldest daughter was struggling with an undiagnosed learning disability. It wasn’t until arriving in East Hampton that we were met with confident, compassionate, observant teachers who were able to help advocate for our daughter and get her the assistance that she needed. Instead of surviving, my daughter is now thriving. For the first time ever, she is competing. She’s happy, she is successful, and is making high honors every semester this year.”
An elderly town resident said that when his own children attended East Hampton public schools three decades ago, he saw their education as a gift from older residents who no longer had children in school and vowed to do the same when his children were grown. “And here I am,” he said. “Our schools are an extraordinary investment and maintaining them, improving them enough to keep up with the times is vital. Children only get one shot to get the best education.”
“I have 23 kids this year. My students are my kids, I love them like my own,” said kindergarten teacher Kelly Snyder. “We are selfless, we are professional. We give and give and give until we can’t give anymore and then we still give more even when we’re at the point of exhaustion.”
She continued, “I am so grateful to be working here, because this feels like home to me. It feels like a family environment. I’ve never seen a community come together like this to fight and support their teachers, and I am extremely grateful for each and every one of you.”
A ninth-grader adapted a quote from Winston Churchill in his remarks to the town council, to great applause and cheering from the audience.
“We will fight you in the boardroom. We will fight you in the media. And we will fight you in the elections because we will never waver,” he said. “I tell you now, that as long as I can stand here, and as long as the members of this community can stand before you, we will never surrender!”
A 2020 East Hampton High School graduate told the town council, “If there’s one thing I remember from my time as an East Hampton student it is by far the interactions with teachers. Even online during the pandemic, each teacher stood by us and did their best. Not only to support us academically, but emotionally—they went above and beyond to show us we were not forgotten. and I am so appreciative of everything they did.”
She continued, “Today I stand here no longer as a student of East Hampton, but as a voter of this town. The students you have heard from tonight will remember. I remember. And we are or will be the ones voting.”