Friday, May 5, 2017

#oklaed Picks Up the Slack -- AGAIN.

This…this is what we’ve come to.

Nearly 10 years of the steepest cuts to education in the nation. In. The. Nation. Ten years, starting before oil went belly-up in Oklahoma. Accusations that education just had to ‘get more efficient, tighten our belts, get rid of the fat, fire all the do-nothing administrators,” Then we’d be back to the Golden Years of #oklaed. Those years when we followed the class size requirements of HB1017. When we had funds for copier ink. When our school libraries actually had, you know, new books.

It’s come to this. Seminole Public School District teachers shuttled into a room and given a ballot…A ballot that gave them two options. Willingly forgo their negotiated step raise for next year, or give it back to the district, to save a colleague’s job. It wasn’t phrased quite that neutrally. In fact this would make an interesting lesson in tone and diction.

  •        I agree to set aside the negotiated agreement, for the 2017-2018 school year only, in order to forgo a step raise to save another teacher’s job.

  •         I do not agree to set aside the negotiated agreement, for the 2017-2018 school year only. I want my step raise. I do not care about another teacher’sq [sic] job.

Teachers forced to decide on the spot if their families can afford a year with no raise. To decide on the spot if they can forgo that car payment, or the electric bill. Or the mortgage. To be told if they voted to receive their negotiated step raise they do not care about other teachers. Selfish boors.

For those who are not acquainted with negotiated step raises, I’m including the Norman Public Schools salary schedule for teachers with a bachelor’s degree. If you look down the left column, you will see that the numbers increase by $200-$400 or so each year. Before taxes. It’s not a lot to give up, but it is giving up something that’s been promised, and something that’s already been budgeted for.

Before you think I’m holding Seminole Schools, the latest district to ask their teachers to make this hard choice, responsible, let me disabuse you. Seminole Schools, Norman Schools, OKC Schools are in this kind of impossible choice because we have been starved by a legislature and other policy makers who have different priorities. A legislature that has cut schools since 2008, even though we have seen an increase in the number of students in our schools. Fewer dollars, more students, more gut-wrenching decisions.

School districts spend over 80% of their budgets on teacher salaries…so, once the efficiencies have been introduced, the belts have been tightened and fat’s been cut, teacher salaries come next. At that point, a district must make tough decisions.  Millwood Schools made that hard decision last year. Everyone took a pay cut. Everyone. The Superintendent, the teachers, the bus drivers. Everyone. It was a district decision for the good of the students. More teachers mean smaller classes, with more individual attention for our students. Millwood did it together. Teachers’ salaries were cut $600. So, no step, and a cut. They saved eleven teaching positions.

Seminole is now facing a similar situation…no cuts, it appears. Just no raise.

Yes, the wording on the ballot is manipulative. The tone is aggressive, a serious case of guilting. That is one issue…and as issues go, it’s not the major one.

We can never lose sight of the reason Millwood voluntarily cut salaries, the reason other districts have laid off teachers, the reason many districts made the drastic decision to cut the school week to four days, the reason Seminole is now facing this painful situation. The legislature has not supported our public schools as it should. As the Oklahoma Constitution demands and expects.

"SECTION XIII-1 Establishment and maintenance of public schools. The Legislature shall establish and maintain a system of free public schools wherein all the children of the State may be educated.:"

The responsibility for these no-win decisions forced onto our schools rests squarely on our elected policy makers who have systematically cut funding and support to our public schools. Responsibility is shared by voters.  Voters who chose not to vote, or chose to believe rhetoric over actions. Voters who did not vote for public education.

We entered this Legislative Session with the promise that education and teacher salaries were the number one priority…that the legislators ‘heard’ the people and would find a ‘better plan’ for teacher raises. That was February. With monthly revenue failures. Lowering of our bond rating. And cuts to core services throughout the state. Cuts to education. More cuts.

We watched, with muted hope, or no hope, as legislators got to work. We hoped a budget would be the major focus.

We saw a bill to mandate teachers’ grading practices. We saw a bill to weaken the science curriculum of the state. We saw a bill that would let schools suspend third graders, with no counseling services. We saw a bill to require high school students to pass the citizenship test in order to graduate. And we saw our Governor veto a bill to end the last End of Instruction exam for high school students, US History. At the cost of $2M+.

What did we not see? Funding for a teacher raise. Revenue ideas with sustaining sources (we have heard of proposals for fees on salon visits, tattoo parlors, dog grooming businesses. Fees on gumball machines).

A nearly ONE BILLION DOLLAR HOLE in our budget – again.

Instead, we see teachers giving and giving. Buying books and supplies for their classroom. Buying snacks to feed hungry students. Choosing to take salary cuts for the good of their district. Other school employees are also giving back in many ways as well.

And so. It comes down to schools begging teachers to give back their negotiated raise for next year to help the district retain teachers and keep class sizes manageable. A heartbreaking decision. A decision teachers should never be called to make. I've heard that the Seminole Superintendent told the teachers that he will ask the Board to renegotiate HIS salary, with a 5% cut, so he is showing that leadership of shared sacrifice. 

A Facebook friend said there’s a third choice on that unfortunately-worded ballot: “I care enough about another teacher’s job, that she can have mine.” Too many teachers are saying just that. We continue to bleed teachers, to underpay teachers, to ask that they return part of their already-lower-than-the-regional-average teacher salary. So schools can stay afloat, survive another year, hoping this Session will see some real progress toward sustainable revenue, real support of our schools, and a teacher raise.

I want to make this crystal clear: I am not blaming all legislators. I am not blaming all legislators of the majority party. I spend one or two mornings at the Capitol all through Session. I sit in on Committee meetings. I've asked for, and been granted private appointments with legislative leaders, who, frankly, don't have to give me the time of day. I have had mostly cordial conversations with many lawmakers. I listen and verify everything they say to me, and sometimes the truth is stretched or massaged. I know where many stand on some of the big, thorny budget issues. I'm grateful that I feel like the Capitol is my House. I know work is happening. 

But, in less than three weeks, the Session, by law, must end. With a balanced budget. If not, a Special Session will be required, costing Oklahoma a teacher’s salary every day. We wait, with dwindling hope, or no hope. And many teachers are already planning the moves that could bring their families more financial stability.

Happy #TeacherAppreciationWeek to us.

**Note -- I am waiting to find the KFOR link to their story of the ballot. Have not found it online yet. Am publishing this without it and will revise when we find the link.

1 comment: