EAGLE, Colorado - In the middle of Teacher Appreciation Week, the school board Wednesday upheld a decision to lay off Nancy Bujnowski.
The foreign-language teacher has spent her entire 21-year career at Eagle Valley High School. She's four years from retirement.
She and the district's other two foreign-language teachers are all being replaced by a computer program, Aventa, for which students must pay at least $150 per semester, the district said.
The board's unanimous vote followed almost two dozen people - students and adults, alike - asking the school board to save Bujnowski and the other foreign language teachers, citing the importance of foreign language learning in an increasingly global economy. They pointed out that foreign-language classes are where students learn English-language grammar and syntax.
"They're not getting it in English classes," said Dr. Chuck Vogel, one of Bujnowski's Eagle Valley teaching colleagues, citing several university studies.
The move leaves Spanish as the only face-to-face program, with a teacher in a classroom with students.
"I don't think anyone should take this personally, but the bottom line of this is that this stinks," school board member Brian Nolan said.
School board president Jeanne McQueeney said the board followed its new reduction-in-force policy.
The school district cut several teachers, citing its budget crunch, leaving open an avenue of appeal all the way to the school board. Bujnowski was the first teacher to appeal her termination.
The school board heard her case Wednesday.
"It's Teacher Appreciation Week, and it's ironic that we're talking about this tonight," said Sandra Smyser, school superintendent.
Bujnowski's most recent personnel review graded her as a "superior" teacher, her attorney told the school board. She was Colorado's French teacher of the year for 2000, he said.
"This has been a very difficult time for the school district," said Brian Childress, the school district's human-resources director. "We are eliminating people and teachers who are valuable, such as Nancy. We've had to make terrible decisions, and this has been one of them."
The decision was not based on Bujnowski's professional evaluation, Childress said.
"It was not about her as a person or a teacher. It was about whether or not we could offer this material in a different way," Childress said.
Childress insisted that the online Aventa language program has been effective where it's implemented.
Bujnowski's supporters weren't buying it, countering that good teachers cannot be replaced with a computer program.
Bujnowski teaches French, German, English, Chinese and English as a second language. She earned her master's degree in English-language acquisition.
Childress said two ESL positions opened up and Bujnowski didn't apply for them.
Cynthia Blancke's job also was cut. She has 30 years as a foreign-language teacher and 17 with Eagle County schools. She teaches Latin, French, German and Spanish with the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy.
Blancke said she started looking at Aventa in 2009 and couldn't believe how many mistakes there were. So they hired her to correct them and build an AP French class, she said.
It doesn't come close to the teacher-student experience, she said. Foreign-language classes include reading, writing, speaking and listening all in one class period. Online classes offer only reading and writing.
"Students struggle to learn anything, and I'm not saying that just because I lost my job," she said.
It takes as many as 1,000 hours to earn one credit in an online class.
"The passionate teacher is better than any system," she said.
Then there's the money.
"It costs $600 a year to pay for Aventa. Multiply that by the number of my students, and that's my salary," she said.