This is not how Jas Warren, Wharton High’s theatre teacher and director, expected the curtain to close on his long career.
Warren, who has been at the school since it opened in 1997 and helped lead the theatre department to dozens of awards and State competition appearances, is one of many teachers caught in the crosshairs after budget cuts were announced last week by Hillsborough County Superintendent of Schools Addison Davis in an effort to chop down a $100-million deficit.
The cuts mean that more than 1,200 positions in the country’s seventh-largest school district are being eliminated.
In New Tampa, Warren was far from the only teacher to be affected, but was one of the most senior among teachers who found their positions eliminated as the District continues to struggle with finances. Wharton’s theatre program has been one of the District’s best for many years.
“I guess I’m kind of a little bit sad, a little bit angry and kind of surprised,” says Warren. “I’ve done nothing but exemplary work for 31 years. I thought that meant something. I’ve been at Wharton for 24 straight years; I stood here when it was nothing but a dirt floor, and we’ve had award-winning theater productions, won at the District level and went on to the State level where we have received superior ratings. But, I guess that doesn’t seem to matter much.”
It does matter to parent Kelly Miller, whose daughter went through Warren’s program and whose son also attends the school. Miller says she was disappointed to see the program lose its founder.
“The school is known for its award- winning theater programs,” Miller says. “I’m very shocked at this. Without him, the program will collapse.”
Warren, like many of those who have seen their positions eliminated in the most recent round of cuts, was moved into the teacher’s pool — where he could land another job, although there will be few theatre positions available — because there were fewer students to teach these days.
A Hall of Fame inductee for the international Educational Theatre Association, Warren says he has been told he was being let go because he didn’t have enough students — although he still has about 50 kids in his program now, which is down from 110-120 pre-Covid.
He says he has been overwhelmed with the level of support and outrage from former students and parents, and will keep on fighting “until there is nothing to fight for.”
The theatre program will go on at Wharton, under the direction of a new teacher who also teaches other classes. The same goes for the band program at Benito Middle school, where 10-year veteran Staisy Kibart was told she no longer would run the program (but would be guaranteed a job somewhere else in the District) and it would be taken over, presumably, by another teacher.
Kibart says that when cuts were made last fall, she was told something was coming down. This time, she says she was caught off guard. “We were told something could happen in the fall when cuts were coming in October, but that conversation was never had this time around,” Kibart says. “I was pulled in Wednesday afternoon (April 14) and the bomb was dropped. They said we have to let a music teacher go, and it’s you.”
Benito will have a net loss of 8.08 positions, while Liberty Middle School will lose 6.88. Turner-Bartels K-8 School, however, is losing 16 positions, including five positions in grades 1-4, three Exceptional Student Education (ESE) positions and a music teacher, believed to be chorus.
At the high schools, Wharton actually gained some key positions (including two in reading) and will suffer a net loss of only 3.48 positions, while Freedom High will lose 12.32 positions.
However, Freedom principal Kevin Stephenson says those numbers don’t equal teachers. When vacancies that will go unfilled are unaccounted for, he “only” expects to lose 5-6 teachers.
Stephenson says the cuts will hurt everyone, but are needed.
“It’s something our District really needs to do to get into alignment financially,” he says. “There are challenges, but we have those every year. You have to make payroll, and that means doing things that are really tough.”
The cuts come after dozens of meetings between Davis, the School Board and principals and assistant principals this year.
District 3 School Board member Jessica Vaughn, a Tampa Palms resident, says the cuts are hard on so many but she feels Davis and his staff tried to be as thoughtful as they could, by including school administrators in the process.
But, in order to avoid a state takeover of the District for not meeting certain thresholds in the county reserves, as well as payroll, Vaughn said the action had to be taken.
“I don’t see any way around the cuts to avoid the State taking us over,” she says. “We have to stay out of receivership. I don’t trust the intentions of the State when it comes to doing what’s best for the District.”
Instead of directing her ire at Davis, Vaughn pointed a finger at the State legislature, which she says has continued to vote against providing more money for education and has instead focused on charter school expansion.
Necessary or not, “I think that these cuts drastically, drastically hurt our School District, and that we will feel it for a long time to come.”