After nearly eight years of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s administration, state funding for Minnesota schools has dropped and districts are increasingly reliant on property taxes to provide a proper education. Since 2001 when the state promised to assume the majority of school funding, it has actually reduced its level of education funding an inflation-adjusted 14 percent while local funding has tripled to adjust for the shortfall. In the 2010 legislative session, lawmakers pushed state debt onto already suffering schools’ backs, which have no short-term referendum authority to meet immediate budget needs.
My home district of Saint Paul cut $26 million this year because the state has delayed its payment to the district to appear financially solvent. This is what the governor’s fiscal irresponsibility looks like at Central High School, where I teach, as we start the new year:
A nationally recognized choir director who consistently leads her choir to superior ratings in competitions conducted her last choir on graduation night. Following the graduation, students immediately engulfed her in a swirl of red and black gowns. She will not be conducting this year; she has been cut from her department of two.
A parent, angry over the loss of the choir teacher, had lashed out at the St. Paul Federation of Teachers over a tenure system that allows the least senior teacher to be bumped despite her talent. The parent brings out the old canard that unions protect senior teachers at the expense of talented younger teachers, but what the parent doesn’t understand is that the tenure system was devised to protect teachers, whose jobs are frequently controversial, from the caprice of administrators. The real culprit is the lack of time available to administrators to monitor and remove ineffective teachers. Union contracts provide the means to remove ineffective teachers but administrators who are overwhelmed by student and district duties heaped upon them through budget cuts have little time to visit classrooms and work with teachers. Ultimately, the parent’s complaint would not be necessary if the state was living up to its funding commitment.
Meanwhile, we’re down a talented but not tenured English teacher. The principal called him in three days before last Memorial Day weekend, notifying him his contract wouldn’t be renewed purely due to the district’s financial situation. At the time, his wife was pregnant and they had recently bought their first house.
There are other deficits we’ll be facing as well. We lost six teachers and several educational assistants in the latest round of budget cuts, including another member of our counseling department where we have five counselors to serve nearly 2,200 students. That’s 440 students per counselor for monitoring progress toward graduation, ACT scores, college applications, class registration and state standardized testing.
A district human resources official assures me that those in the pool to replace our lost English colleague are all good teachers and I don’t doubt it, but that assumes our colleague is a cog in a machine that can be easily exchanged. It ignores he’s someone students feel comfortable talking to even if they aren’t in his class, or that students look forward to the day he teaches Chekov each year when he dresses up as the long-dead Russian playwright and author.
I write about these stories not because my colleagues are unique – although they are – but because all schools, the people staffing them and the students attending them are unique. For nine months we live together, take care of each other, share each others’ stories and lend each other a hand. In doing so, we forge unique environments where students belong, even those who feel they are alone.
The upheaval that schools across Minnesota are enduring isn’t because of a teacher’s contract or because of malfeasance by teachers, administrators or even district officials. It is because of malfeasance by elected officials who want to build their reputations on no new taxes pledges and who balance budgets on the backs of public education. Yes, the economy is bad, but the political posturing that is pushing teachers out of the profession while raising class sizes to 40 or more is worse.
If projections hold, we’ll be walking into rooms today with more than 40 ninth graders in each class. At five classes a day, that is 200 students to whom we owe our attention and meaningful feedback on their writing, homework, and tests. I will struggle to give that feedback and call parents as we always do. And I will miss my colleagues, Martha, Anthony, and Nick.