I attended the Finance Committee meeting for our School Board earlier this week.  The bottom line is that due to no interest on investments, reduced income from property taxes and reassessment of homes, no new growth in the area, etc. we are having to do the same or more with less money than ever.  The School Board is considering outsourcing many classes of employees in order to get rid of pension and benefit costs, which are skyrocketing.  Costs go up each year, while benefits stay the same or are reduced, in part thanks to decisions made by the State, not by the local school board, utting control of changes largely out of our hands.  There’s no money for raises, and in fact, the District is looking at whether it will need to suggest an across the board pay cut for everyone in the District, top to bottom.

I think pay cuts are very hard for anyone to swallow.  I don’t know anyone who says to themselves “Well, I can eat 5% less next year” or “Maybe I can use 5% less electricity” – those costs rise, and on a shrinking paycheck, it is a double hit.   It sucks, but there is simply no money available to avoid having to consider these options before looking at serious cutbacks in programs that effect students, ie. firing teachers outright and/or getting rid of sports or arts programs, or other things that frankly help kids in many ways that may not always show up in test scores or on report cards.

I’ve got a kid entering college in the Fall, and I know that our expenses will be up as well.  We’ll have to decide what to do without or how to make changes and different choices to make sure our son goes to college with the minimal debt possible.  That’s our choice, and we have to do things now to ensure we’ll be able to handle the anticipated expenditures in the near future.  So I do understand, personally as well as in the abstract, what the situation faced by our District and our teachers looks and feels like.

Our local teacher’s union is not willing to talk about possible salary cuts or come up with any additional solutions for how to spread the pain around at the moment.  The District has proposed a “spread the pain evenly” solution that makes sense and has a sense of shared sacrifice, rather than hitting only custodians, support staff, administrators or teachers alone.  I get that the Union doesn’t want this to happen, but in all seriousness, pretending they can just stonewall and avoid it is like a kid holding their breath until they turn blue.  This is not a time to be an Ostrich and assume you can just get what you want. Everything needs to be on the table for discussion, so everyone has a complete picture of what we face and what we can use to ease the overall impact of the cuts.

I understand the need for unions.  From a State perspective, having everyone on the same contract seems more reasonable than negotiating piecemeal with every teacher in the State.  Teachers like it as well, I suppose, because it prevents them from being fired over one particularly upset parent or one bad outcome, which could happen to anyone.  However, the Union also protects some teachers who aren’t pulling their weight and are unwilling to do anything beyond the letter of their contract.  It shows up in small ways- like a teacher refusing to answer email after school hours.  When a teacher is not grading papers in a timely fashion, allowing kids to assess what they know and don’t know so they can fill in holes before the next test or exams.  When teachers seems unwilling to do anything other than the mandated professional development days, making their continuing education seem like forced labor rather than a chance to improve or discover new things.  I’ve heard folks say “I am not being paid to do things after work hours and I need a life.”  Well, as a parent, I would also argue that if students took this same point of view, there would be no homework done at all.  They could hand in assignments whenever they felt like it without penalty.  In fact, when a teacher insists on new training before using something as simple as an iPad, it seems to place barriers between themselves and innovation, rather than an innate curiosity or internal motivation to learn, that they will say they want and expect from their own students.

I worry that some unions help teachers see students just as widgets coming down the assembly line as not as people.  I worry that the union may be dehumanizing the art of teaching and turning it into an assembly line process, where another batch rolls into the assembly line every September, and as long as a minimum number pass out, everything is fine, until those widgets end up with problems later on.  But by then, the accountability and blame is long past the person who failed to install all the proper reading and writing chips in earlier grades.  I am sure, on the flip side, teachers feel they are being treated as information machines, with test scores acting as exact tolerance for manufacturing students, with all the creativity of teaching seemingly flushed out of the system that rewards meeting standards and metrics alone, talking the joy out of learning for everyone.  But this objectification of students and teachers as a business/manufacturing model hurts the very nature of what we’re trying to do- educate kids for a dynamic and ever changing future.

This rigid system is a source of frustration and the reason why many people don’t like public schools.  It seems like a system and institution more than a place of learning and exchange of ideas.  Yet I see amazing things happening with kids and teachers in our district every day.  Caring and community from each and every member of the staff, from bus drivers to cafeteria ladies to teachers and principals.  It can be so much better, and these improvements are often attitudinal more than costly.  It’s the occasional “clock puncher” attitude that’s frustrating, and the lack of human flexibility we need in schools today more than ever.  I understand putting limits in place so the job does not consume every aspect of your life, but the outside world now expects wider availability from each and every employee, and schools are going to have to start becoming more flexible in this way as well.

There’s an old saying- When Elephants Fight, it’s the Grass That Gets Trampled.  In this case, as the adults fight and worry, it’s our kids that will suffer, in direct and indirect ways.  Teachers will be crabby, and maybe less accommodating or attentive, as any of us would be in the same situation.  This will mean our kids will experience indifference and a lack of the caring mentorship approach to education we hope they all have, at least at some point during their education.  It will be no surprise when kids start to turn off of school, and feel it’s increasingly irrelevant, which we all know has even worse long term consequences for them, even if their current assessment of the situation is pretty close to the mark.

I heard from students a number of years ago that before a big test, the teachers said that if they didn’t do well, the State would take over the schools, so they should work hard.  This is a grownup problem, not a kid problem, and I thought it was really inappropriate for any teacher or administrator to talk about that with the kids.  The kids don’t need the stress and pressure, and who really knows what a State take over would really mean, anyway?  Besides, some kids I know would be equally happy to bomb the test on purpose if they didn’t like the teacher, even if it harmed themselves and others in the process.

We need to work together to fix this- parents, students, administrators, teachers and the community- and everyone, including the Union, will need to flex if we are really to do the jobs we expect of them- teach our children to be terrific, educated and involved citizens.

This is a time where we all have to get creative and come up with ways to share the pain, including asking students and parents to do a little more, whether that’s “elbow grease” volunteer labor. We all need to hang together.  Parents need to contact public officials and help lobby for relief from the State and other funding agencies.  Students need to make sure they don’t accidentally cause more expense for the District, by making sure they don’t write on walls, put gum under desks, or other things that costs time and money to correct.  Each small piece of the puzzle can lead to a better overall picture for everyone involved.  What it will take is for all of us to sit down and decide how to marshall all of our resources to reach the same common endpoint- making sure our District is a place where students and teachers can’t wait to get to school in the morning, and explore the world.

I hope we can get this discussion started as soon as possible, and that we can leave assumptions and presumptions at the door.  I have my reservations about whether it’s possible, but I hope everyone will be able to come to the table with an open mind.

It’s the only real chance we have.