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Holding signs and chanting, hundreds of students walked out of classes Friday morning at Syracuse High School to protest district budget cuts.
The students were unhappy about eight Syracuse teachers who will likely lose their jobs next school year, be involuntarily transferred or have their hours cut. The Davis District is proposing a number of cuts to handle a $31 million budget shortfall caused by the poor economy, unfunded enrollment growth and increasing retirement system costs, among other issues.
Students spread the word about the walkout Thursday via text messages and a Facebook page titled "Save SHS Teachers and Programs." Estimates as to the number of students who walked out range from 400 to 1,000.
"Everyone was out there because they wanted to be out there and support teachers, not because they wanted to get out of class," said Syracuse senior Melissa Wallace, who started the Facebook page. "We just wanted to find a way that we could get the voices heard of the students."
Many of the students said they also worry about larger class sizes next year.
"By having less teachers, it's going to make our class sizes bigger, which is going to make it harder to learn," said sophomore Austin Swenson, who also walked out. "I hope the district really notices that us students, we really do care about school ... we really do care about the teachers."
Police issued about half a dozen citations to students for not wearing seat belts while driving near the protest, said Syracuse police Lt. Tracy Jensen. Students were driving with passengers hanging out windows and horns blaring, said Chris Williams, district spokesman. "I think any parent who would have seen what was going on out there would have been very concerned," he said. Police also taped off the area where students protested to keep them out of the street.
District officials had hoped to get students back to class within a half hour, but as of about noon, some students were still outside, Williams said.
He said the school's principal tried to thwart the walkout early Friday by making a school announcement explaining the district's budget challenges. Students also said they were told they would be cited for truancy if they walked out of class. Williams said students who already had attendance problems might face consequences for walking out, but truancy citations won't be automatically issued to all the students. Walkouts were also planned at other Davis schools Friday, but only Syracuse students carried one out.
The district has until the end of June to finalize its budget. To cope with the shortfall district-wide, Davis is considering cutting 28 district office and school-level administrators; increasing class sizes by one student in elementary schools and junior highs and by 1.5 students in high schools; not renewing 90 educators hired this year on one-year-only contracts; eliminating 15 school counselor positions; eliminating one school secretary per high school; and cutting 11.5 reading teacher positions.
The district also is considering shortening the school year and changing health insurance and pay, but those issues are being negotiated between the district and its employee unions. The district also is working with a polling company to ask area taxpayers whether they would consider a tax increase.
A new law allows districts to use money normally used for construction for operational expenses instead for two years to help weather the recession. But Davis, which expects more than 900 new students next year, is not considering that option.
"We know that if we do that it's only a Band-Aid," Williams said. "We have to hang on to the money because we're a growing school district."
Williams said that when 86 percent of the district's costs are tied to personnel "it doesn't take long before people are affected."
Still, students at the walkout Friday carried signs, including one that read, "Save the teachers ,yes, we can."
Swenson's father, Chris Swenson, said he's proud of his son for participating in the walkout.
"I think it took a lot of guts for the kids to actually step up and follow through," Chris Swenson said. "Every year we're getting larger and larger class sizes, and I think there are a lot of valuable teachers being cut. I think they need to look in another direction."