SOUTH KINGSTOWN — School may not be in session this week, but dozens of students showed up to Monday night’s joint budget hearing to encourage members of the school committee not to cut funding from the music department.
While many students and parents spoke about the important role music education can play in a young person’s life, everyone who took the podium in favor of protecting funding for the arts also threw their support behind Ryan Muir, the high school’s director of choral music and theater.
“While I’m advocating for this entire department, I’m also advocating for my job specifically,” Muir said Monday night, warning against cuts to the arts. “I feel when you take continuity out of this growth that has been happening, you lose the trust of your students.”
Although Muir has only worked in the district for two years, giving him the lowest rank on the totem pole in terms of seniority, many of his students, past and present, sung his praises that night about the impact he’s had in growing the music and theater departments.
“It’s sad to say I’ve done this before and I’ve moved around a lot,” Muir said. “I know there aren’t any cuts to music yet, however, the writing on the wall tells me that’s what’s coming.”
Numerous students who took advantage of public comment said Muir was consistently the only teacher in the building who’d ask about their personal well being. One of his students, Alexa Cardente, who was moved to tears about the thought of Muir leaving the district, said she thought of him as a father figure.
Through classes and clubs within the music department, like the Addams Family Musical put on in February by the Rebel Theater Group, Cardente said she’d found a home and a family at South Kingstown High School.
“As a lead in the production, I can vouch that Mr. Muir is the prime example of a dedicated teacher,” she said. “He stayed up late with us, he made us laugh and feel at home, and no matter how much we teased him and annoyed him, still stayed a magnificent role model and what I would compare to a father figure.”
“The Rebel Theater Group is a family of kids who don’t belong at all, but have now found they don’t need to as long as they have each other,” Cardente continued. In many ways, she attributed Muir as being the head of the family that kept everyone together. She and many other students said there would be no point in remaining in the district if he left.
Cardente’s older sister, Lauren, who has since graduated from South Kingstown High School, also stood up for funding fine arts and protecting Muir’s position. Muir began teaching at the high school during her senior year.
“I have seen the arts programs attacked time and time again, and you’re making the choice of what to prioritize,” she said. “I know that’s a difficult decision, but if you chose not to prioritize the arts and music education, you are disregarding these students. You are disregarding our education. I want you to realize that students are here advocating for their education. They’re sitting in the back.”
Two of the back rows of the council chamber were crowded with students that night for several hours as public comment continued.
Both the town and the school district are facing significant funding issues in the coming fiscal year. State aid funding to education in South Kingstown has consistently gone down for nine consecutive years, according to Town Manager Robert Zarnetske, and next year funding will be cut by more than $800,00o. To combat this, the district will be letting go 21.7 full-time employees, according to Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow. Some of the laid-off teachers will have a chance to be rehired at lower level, part-time positions.
In addition to a 1.75 percent property tax transfer rate to the schools, the town has also had to increase the general fund by 6.1 percent to cover other expenses, such as contractual agreements or debt service payments. Currently, the town’s debt has climbed to more than $81 million.
These factors, as well as an overall 6.7 percent increase to the town’s senior services, have been the main drivers behind the 3.97 increase to the levy. Other urgent needs include bringing four additional paramedics onto the emergency medical services team and a traffic enforcement officer, as well as shifting funding toward the Tri-County Community Action Agency.
Because the budget is stretched so thin, Zarnetske said the only option the council has to add funding in the budget is to shift money from somewhere else.
“At this point, there’s no room to increase anything in the budget,” Zarnetske said. “The only thing that can be done at this point in time is shift. There’s no room to add to the property tax burden that this budget would impose on local taxpayers.”
Although many in the audience stood up and spoke in favor of protecting the arts, others advocated on behalf of building out the town’s emergency medical services, which they said was in benefit of the entire town. Joslin Leasca, who herself is a licensed medical professional, was a strong voice in the argument for improving ambulance response times. For victims of cardiac arrest, she said, every minute lost decreases that person’s chances of survival by 7 to 10 percent.
The fact that South Kingstown falls so far behind on benchmark standards for emergency response times hits close to home for Leasca.
“A few years ago, a 54-year-old was surfing on South County when he suffered sudden cardiac death in the water,” Leasca said. “He was dragged from the water by bystanders, bystander CPR was initiated and 911 was notified. They took 18 minutes.”
“Eighteen minutes,” Leasca repeated, “before EMS got to the call. It was another three to five minutes before they reached the victim.”
The surfer in the water that day had been Leasca’s brother. Over the course of seven months, Leasca said she watched her brother die inch by inch because of inadequate and too late resuscitation.
“I will never get over it,” Lesca said. “And I hope none of you ever have to experience the failure of emergency management systems to get to one of your loved ones in the event of cardiac arrest because we lobbied for one teacher’s job using our school children. Which I happen to be disgusted by, by the way.”
Leasca stressed the importance of adding four additional paramedics. Seven out of 10 residents in South Kingstown do not have children in the school system, she said, and seniors are part of the town’s fastest growing, and wealthiest, demographic.
“We need to balance the needs of the global community in the context of all of us, cradle to grave,” Leasca said. “How would you feel if there was a mother standing up here whose baby died because we couldn’t afford an EMS? How would you explain that? And what kind of liability is that to the town that we can’t provide an adequate EMS system?”
Town Council President Abel Collins said EMS said the town has funded everything the town has asked for, including significant raises this year to make the town more competitive with other communities. He said that although the hope is to expand the program, he was proud of the services provided compared to some towns that do not have any services.
An uproar from members in the audience followed his comments who said the services are clearly deficient. A row between Collins and Leasca also came about, and Collins he said he was allowed to speak passed the allotted time limit.
One community member jumped out of her seat, shouting from the audience that Collins is “sexist when it comes to women speaking.”
“We have one truck on at night, and if that truck is called for mutual aid to Charlestown or Narragansett, you know what we’ve got for a truck? Nothing,” Leasca pressed forward. “I don’t think the town knows that, but they’re going to know it now.”
Another student, Stella DeSimone, who said she hopes to go into the medical field and help victims of cardiac arrest to prevent others from having to lose their loved ones, also said Muir has inspired so many students in his time in South Kingstown.
“I think the cause of keeping him here, keeping his family and his children here, is in no way, shape or form, disgusting,” DeSimone said.