By Carissa Wolf
WesCom News Service
BROOKINGS The message was clear: "Don't make the students pay for budget cuts."
The plea, printed across a picket sign in colored marker, echoed throughout the campus and along Easy Street earlier this week as Brookings-Harbor High School students spilled from classrooms and the cafeteria to join a protest that took aim at proposed budget cuts and district leadership.
"They're making us pay for the fact that they're making bad decisions," said junior Sarra Brune, one of the student protesters on Monday afternoon. "It is our future at stake."
Chief among students' concerns was the prospective lay-off of beloved school guidance counselor Gery Breen and nine other district staffers. The district also trimmed the proposed $18.5 million 2007-2008 budget that began with a $1.3 million shortfall by not replacing a retiring teacher, reducing and combining jobs, slashing summer school costs and scaling back on school improvements. This year students had three fewer days of school so that the district could balance its budget.
Among students' solutions for the district's money woes: Vote current school board members out of office and fire the district's school superintendent.
Some students said that the district pays Superintendent Chris Nichols far too much for the work that she does. They said they don't see the justification in paying Nichols nearly $98,000 in light of the district's financial problems and proposed budget cuts.
The school board recently granted Nichols a 2 percent annual pay raise, making her one of the highest paid superintendents of a district the size of Brookings-Harbor in Oregon.
"If we cut that, (Nichols' salary) in half, we could put that money back in the school," said sophomore Jackson DeHaven, who added that the district paid Nichols a superintendent's salary while she was not properly licensed to hold the job during the 2004-2005 school year. Nichols eventually earned the credential that she needed to hold her post and received a formal reprimand from the Teachers Standards and Practices Commission.
Nichols is out of town for the entire week and could not be reached for comment.
Brookings-Harbor School Board Chair Larry Anderson said that teachers and classified employees can collectively bargain for pay raises and that in recent years, the schools administrative staff has received a 2 percent pay raise to help cover the increase in the cost of living. Anderson said that the school board extended that 2 percent raise to Nichols.
"That 2 percent is much less than the average cost-of-living benefit given to classified and certified (employees)," Anderson said.
DeHaven said that budget shortfalls and an unqualified administration have hurt his education. He attended schools in California and Washington and said that after moving to the Brookings-Harbor district, he saw a big difference in the quality of education at the high school. He said school couldn't offer the challenging courses he was used to and that the level of instruction lagged behind what was offered at the other schools he attended.
"We're not getting educated," DeHaven said.
About 40 students, another 40 student onlookers, and a handful of parents who shared DeHaven's sentiments joined the student-led protest that started at the beginning of the lunch hour with just a handful of students holding signs and chanting, "Bring Breen back!"
"It's disheartening to hear people express freedom of speech and throw out those zinger words when, number one, they haven't participated in the process and two; this isn't a new problem," Anderson said.
The board has had to make a range of cuts in recent years as it deals with declining enrollment and declining revenues.
But students say that they want to hold on to what's left.
They took that message to the district's administrative offices near the school cafeteria Monday. Their chants that called for an end to budget cuts grew louder as the demonstration moved across campus.
"Be careful, OK?" High School Principal Emmalee Lee told students as they moved their demonstration to the edge of the high school parking lot and Easy Street.
"I want to make sure they're safe," she said.
The protest ended without incident and students headed back to their classes after the noon hour bell signaled the end of their lunch break.
"I'm very proud of them that they're exercising their rights in a democracy," Lee said. "These are our brightest kids. These are the ones who are going to go out and make a difference."
Students praised the dedication and hard work of teachers and staff who helped them excel at the cash-strapped schools. But they said future students may not have the same opportunities to achieve that they have had. They said that it's not just teachers who are critical to their education. They frequently cited Breen as a source of inspiration and achievement in their lives.
"Mr. Breen has been the biggest help this school has ever seen. He is absolutely critical to this school," said senior Alex Kaylan. "He actually cares."
Protesters described Breen as a counselor who takes the time to get to know each and every one of his students. He knows their strengths and dreams, they said. And the students feel like they have a personal relationship with the counselor they credit with guiding them toward positive and successful futures.
Junior Sarra Brune said that before she started working with Breen she doubted her ability to achieve. She said that she never thought she could take her education much further than high school and didn't think she'd ever be able to attend college.
"But now I do, and that's because of Mr. Breen," she said.
Now Brune is on track to apply for colleges and dreams of becoming a psychologist.
Breen could not be reached for comment on the protest.
Administrators and school board members have blamed the dwindling financial resources and proposed cutbacks on declining student enrollment, which currently sits at 1991 levels. But junior Matthew Miller said if the district had cut Breen from the payroll years ago, he would have never attended public school.
Miller was home schooled until midway through his freshman year. And he could have very easily stayed in home school, Miller said.
"I probably would have never joined the public school if it weren't for the help and support of Mr. Breen," Miller said. "I wouldn't have come to the public school but he showed me what I could do and what my potential was in the public school."
Breen helped Miller plan for the future as a professional musician and was able to craft a music-intensive class schedule that allowed Miller to meet state graduation requirements, challenge his natural talent and acquire the competitive edge needed for music school admissions. Breen also enabled Miller to dream of a good life beyond Brookings-Harbor High School.
"He really helped me out," she said.