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Saugus students protest education budget cuts

Principal: Reductions could get ugly

Posted: June 1, 2009 10:42 p.m.
Updated: June 2, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Saugus High School students sat for hours in their campus quad to protest state budget cuts to education Monday morning.

 
Saugus High School Principal Bill Bolde strode out onto the campus quad Monday morning to solve a problem.

The bells had rung and the rest of the kids had rushed off to their 9 a.m. classes, leaving the school's lawns and corridors empty.

Except, of course, for the 70-odd kids holding a butcher-paper-and-red-marker protest sign decrying school budget cuts and staring defiantly at the red-haired administrator.

It was a surprise for Bolde, who had just about nothing to do with the state-mandated education cuts, and for other school staffers.

They couldn't have known that two girls would be so inspired by lessons about civil-rights and anti-war demonstrations that they would use the weekend before finals to use mass text messages and MySpace to organize a sit-in.

"I'm not saying, ‘Accept our ideas,'" said Ashley Olson, a 17-year-old junior who organized the protest with 16-year-old classmate Erin Bercovici.

"I'm saying let us give them to you."

Olson and Bercovici are both in an advanced placement U.S. history and literature class - a block of classes taught by a team of two teachers. The educators had mixed feelings about their students' protest.

"It's very bittersweet," said teacher Brant Botton. "I'm very proud I have students that truly care and love their teachers. At the same time, I would never advocate students (walking) out of the classroom."

Ultimately, the students argued, they wanted to be treated as stakeholders of their own education. They want to be let in on school officials' decisions as to how to apply the cuts.

The William S. Hart Union High School District faces some tough choices. Officials need to trim an estimated $27 million from its budget.

Even as the crowd peppered Bolde with complaints from swelling class sizes to teacher layoffs, Bolde engaged questioners gently.

"What does $27 million look like to you, and how can we get that much money and move forward?" he said. "Right now, we're anticipating it will be ugly."

Some kids offered up the school's plasma televisions - would it save money if the school got rid of them?

No, Bolde said.

What about all the construction the school's been doing? Why don't they spend that money on teaching instead of building?

Because voters chose to spend it on construction bonds, Bolde said.

After more than 15 minutes of talking, the principal reached out.

"It's not easy," he said. "I think you can go another step, and I can help you."

After lunch, the group dispersed. He provided its leaders with information about state representatives and school-district officials and suggested they write letters.

Later, in his office, Bolde reflected on the unscheduled ordeal.

"Sure, the economy is bad," he said. "But do we carry that burden on the backs of kids?"

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