Scores of parents and children converged on the North Tonawanda School Board Wednesday evening because of reports that social workers may be trimmed from the budget.
More than 100 jammed the meeting room on Humphrey Drive, 40 of them standing along the walls during the lengthy meeting.
Children and adults, many of them in tears, took turns at the microphone to tell the trustees how the district's various programs for troubled children have saved families and even saved lives.
When it was over, the board voted unanimously to challenge in court a recent ruling by the State Education Department that the district owes about $200,000 in BOCES wages. This was the financial crisis that spurred recent efforts to cut costs, possibly by laying off some social workers, residents were told.
"I think that if the School Board cancels counseling groups, kids will take out their anger and their problems on other kids and will bully them around," said Cassie Linville, a sixth-grader at Lowry Middle School.
Third-grader Keith Reid said he is in a counseling program called the Lunch Bunch at Gilmore School.
"I also would like help in learning ways to control myself," he said, "especially when it's loud in the cafeteria. So please don't cancel the Lunch Bunch. It's not fair."
Mandy Smith, an eighth-grader at Lowry Middle School, said such a move can jeopardize her Peer Leadership Club, which plans to go around the schools and discuss the HIV virus.
Parent Nancy Militello said many parents can't afford to pay for a psychologist or psychiatrist for their child.
"Cutting jobs (of social workers) will force the remaining staff to, at best, over-crowd the groups, or at worst, turn children away," she said. "These children need consistent and individualized attention."
Later Mrs. Militello explained that the district has 14 social workers who are mandated for special education and another six to serve the regular student population.
"Who would we turn to, to talk to?" a North Tonawanda High School girl asked. "Their parents don't understand what they're going through. My grades went up 20 to 30 points and I was no longer missing class" after receiving counseling.
Kimberly Fisher, whose children have received help since school counseling programs began 11 years ago, said social workers each day "teach children how to manage their feelings," even when they have distracting problems at home.
Retired guidance counselor Winona Stonebraker , chairwoman of the North Tonawanda Organization Undertaking Community Health, added that the need for social workers will grow, as "higher requirements by the state will increase pressures on our kids."
School Board Vice President Patricia Brzezinski commended the speakers for sharing their painful experiences, and she drew applause after describing how her daughter was helped through one of the programs.
"This obviously is a difficult, emotional issue," said President Arthur Pappas. "For a long time the board has been looking at all our programs. The social worker program is being reviewed now."
Pappas said the board hasn't discussed how many, if any, social workers may be cut.
"With your input tonight," he said, "hopefully we'll be able to do the right thing for the students. I am confident we will make a good decision."
School Superintendent John H. George said later that, once the district files its lawsuit in State Supreme Court, a date might be set in November for a hearing, possibly in January, with a ruling no earlier than March. The $200,000 dispute relates to how the district computed the value of services it received from the Niagara County Board of Cooperative Educational Services.