The current novel coronavirus pandemic has led to the deaths of over 10,000 Americans, dozens of executive orders that have limited access to everything from work to travel to leisure activities, and the closing of schools across our state until at least May. One thing is certain: We, at least in recent memory, have never experienced anything like this outbreak.
Unfortunately, that seems to be where the certainty ends. The questions that have percolated since appear to have no better answer than we’re not sure. We are all left to wonder how many more will become ill and whether we are unknowingly infecting others, even as we only venture out for essentials. Many are now unable to work and are left to wonder how they’ll pay the bills and afford food and rent or mortgages. And a large number are now wondering how their kids will be affected, especially regarding their education.
Any review of social media today seems to be impossible to complete without running into a post, tweet or comment about the value of teachers and schools, a nostalgia for a past so fresh in our minds or a yearning to get this over with so that we can get back to normal.
In the meantime, and in very short order, schools and their administrators issued electronic devices to their students and closed their doors, providing only the small number of days they were allowed to let students come to collect belongings.
Teachers, faced with the reality of having to adjust their curriculums in order to deliver their lessons in an exclusively virtual environment, jumped into action and worked, seemingly tirelessly, to develop lesson plans, learn how to deliver instruction to a class that they can’t see (at least not all at once) and do the best they could to implement their plans as soon as school started again.
I’m sure it wasn’t without challenges, which will undoubtedly continue, but the fact that it was possible to even start in such a short order is a testament to their resilience, their commitment and their willingness to sacrifice for their students, our kids.
At the beginning of this year I had pretty ambitious plans to engage our community, local government and other elected officials in discussions related to racism, bullying in schools and the changes that may need to occur in order to prevent both issues from becoming even more ingrained in our society than they already are.
I began attending community events, emailing our elected officials — an activity I need to do more often — and paying closer attention to Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools Board meeting recordings and minutes.
This last activity was a driving force in writing this article and, while refreshingly not related to the coronavirus pandemic, led me to consider the impact that the potential reduction strategies, as proposed, would have on teachers’ jobs, and the academic achievement of the students of our district.
The budget presentation published online from March reports an expected budget shortfall of $3 million due to less revenue and increased expenditures for this year, next and beyond. In reviewing the timeline, it appears as though a major reason for this shortfall was an inaccurate projection of incoming students for 2019 (off by 200 students) and a projection in the increase cost of health insurance.
Notably, and of concern, more than $1 million is proposed to be saved by reducing the number of teachers in elementary and secondary classrooms, restructuring of the teaching and learning department and staff vacancies. These are specifically highlighted as reduction strategies with little detail as to where they might come from or who would be affected most.
It is shocking to read that teaching staff are first on the chopping block without mention of reductions in the cost of extracurricular programs, administrative costs or board salaries. Additionally, revenue themes seem to focus on additional levies and fees associated with activities.
The proposed strategies seem likely to have a negative impact on the students, families and teachers of our school district, either by proposing increased taxes during a time where we may be headed for recession or by reducing the number of teachers in our classrooms.
By the sounds of our boards’ discussion and the budget presentation, it is clear that we are in a precarious place with our budget as it stands right now. There is some doubt around increasing revenue in the future (by attracting new students) and some concern related to our ability to maintain a fund balance as prescribed by board policy.
What we need now is to have community and district leadership that can forge a path forward, think outside the box and propose immediate and long-term measures to curb the financial hardships that we are facing now and may face in the near future. We need leaders who are willing to take accountability for the decisions they’ve made and think critically about the data they have used to make their decisions.
Habits that may have worked in the past most certainly will not work for our kids in the future. Most importantly, we need an active community focused on demanding the best for our kids rather than expecting that what they get will be the best available.
Now is the time for all of us to examine our habits and make behavior adjustments. It is exactly this type of work that we should expect of our community and district leaders, for they are the ones we have entrusted with giving the kids of our district the best possible learning experience.