Hundreds ditch class to show anger over strapped system

Several hundred Portland high school students walked out of classes for nearly an hour Thursday to protest continuing state and district budget cuts to primary and secondary education.

William Gillis, a Franklin High School junior, said he and 16 others organized the walkout about a week ago, 'when students finally had enough. They've cut spring sports, Outdoor School. Kids are going to leave school. We decided to give them (the public) a brief look at what's going to happen.'

Students at Franklin held signs and gathered around the campus statue of Benjamin Franklin to hear their peers express concerns.

Students at Lincoln High School, Marshall High School and at the Metropolitan Learning Center, a kindergarten through 12th grade district school, also participated.

About 100 students protested in downtown's Pioneer Courthouse Square, chanting, 'Whose school? Our school.'

The walkout came 10 days after district leaders, trying to deal with a $50 million budget deficit this year, announced that the district would be cutting all money for high school sports this spring. Other cuts will include funding for Outdoor School, a long-running, popular, four-day environmental camp for middle-schoolers.

District leaders also are proposing to cut 15 days from the school calendar this year to save about $15 million in salary expenses. The Portland district already has one of the shortest school years in the nation.

'We don't know what's going on,' Franklin student Amy Connolly said of the proposed cuts. 'It's all kind of spur of the moment. We don't know what the year's going to look like. We don't know how to plan ahead because nothing is scheduled.'

Alex Diamond, a Franklin junior who helped organize the walkout there, said Wednesday that students began thinking about a walkout because 'there was a lot of anger about the potential for days being cut Ñ and how that might affect our chances of getting into good colleges, to be frank.'

'I think it's important to make a statement to the community that kids care about their education.'

School staff members had heard rumors about the walkout and were supportive but kept their distance, said Erica Mallin, a counselor watching the demonstration at Franklin.

She said a number of students have expressed concerns as to whether the school will be able to keep enough programs to be certified next year. 'It's the students who don't have the resources (to transfer out) that are losing out the most,' she said.

Some students opposed the walkout. Johnell Bell, a Benson High School senior and the student representative on the Portland school board, lobbied students this week to call it off.

'I understand the feeling that students want to get involved,' Bell said. 'And a lot of the students are feeling very frustrated because a lot of the cuts are being made without their input.'

But the walkout in essence subtracts one more day of instruction for Portland district students who already might lose an additional 15 days of instruction this year, Bell said. 'It makes the students look very, very bad when it comes to citizen and community support,' he said.

School board Chairwoman Karla Wenzel agreed. 'There are other ways of expressing displeasure,' she said, including writing letters or otherwise lobbying the next Legislature during non-school time.

'We want to see students make the best out of every instructional minute that the district can provide to them,' Wenzel said. 'I appreciate that the students are really frustrated. But I think the point will be missed.'

Janine Robben contributed to this story. Contact Todd Murphy at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and Janine Robben at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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