Budget cuts at area schools have us sick
Last week, I listened to a Planet Money piece on a financial crisis in Barbados in the 1970s. The country had to borrow money from the IMF, and in doing so, were told they needed to follow some rules in order to reduce spending -- rules that meant they'd have to reduce social services, or reduce wages. After a few of the protests you'd imagine, magically the business leaders and the labor leaders came together and, through difficult talks and careful negotiating, agreed to reduce wages instead of laying off workers or cutting important social programs. Many businesses instituted productivity bonuses and other incentives to help increase worker loyalty.
Decades later, Barbados' economy had improved, wages were much better, employment was stable and -- amazingly -- a deep sense of trust had developed between business and labor interests. Jamaica had experienced a similar crisis and dealt with it differently. In Jamaica, the economy was still bad.
Listening to this story in the background of news from the past few weeks -- in Oregon and around the country -- is sobering. I wish we were as strong and community-focused as Barbados was in the 1970s; I wish we could come together and agree on belt-tightening and shared support for the things that matter to us: people, one by one, jobs, one by one, students, one by one. But no.
In Portland, PPS superintendent Carole Smith has proposed a series of budget cuts meant to reduce the expenses by $19.1 million. In order to be "equitable," she plans to require all schools to make similar cuts. These will, if her proposed budget is approved, be to PE and library employees (126 full-time-equivalent, or FTE, positions); ESL and special education employees (52 positions); and central support and operations (25 positions).
All of my three children qualify for special education, and I've met dozens of the district's amazing special ed staff. I have tears in my eyes, now, as I consider the future for them; and for my kids; and even more, for other kids whose parents don't have as much space in their lives as me. I've carved out a lot to support my children, and I know that not all special ed parents have the ability to do so. These teachers already have a huge load, and in my mind's eye I see their faces and the way they stand at the end of the day as I type this, and I know that we are already loading too much on their shoulders, on their hearts. Cutting these positions hurts, not just them and their families, not just the special education kids and the ESL kids and their families; it will have a ripple effect throughout the community. As support for these children, families and teachers falls away, more kids will end up falling through the cracks, dropping out of school or reacting out of loss and neglect in a way that we will describe as criminal. It's no wonder our criminal justice system is yawning under the load.
I don't need to tell you -- the argument is already made -- that the cuts to PE and library staff are bad. Nothing good will come of keeping children in their seats for more hours of each week. Cuts to PE programs are bad for behavior, attention, and learning, oh, and then there's the obesity crisis.
Brenna wrote to me last week to tell me of the struggle she's facing in the West Linn-Wilsonville School District. Two schools had started Spanish Immersion programs, and her family had tentatively, then enthusiastically, jumped into them. These programs are proven to improve students' educational and life outcomes, and the parents were excited about their future. Last week, suddenly, the programs were on the chopping block, too. She's now considering her options: maybe a charter school?
Our schools can't take these cuts; neither can our kids, our communities. And yet, we march forward, unsure about how to stop the unstoppable machine that is a school district, a machination of city and county and state budgets, falling revenue, rising costs. I feel like the Planet Money piece should be telling us something -- that perhaps we could look each other in the eyes, trust each other, find a better way -- all agree to take a hit in some smaller, less drastic way that would get us through the bad times. Why can't we be the radical place we're known as, and scrub our hands of the old deals and find a solution that means no teachers have to lose their jobs, no kids have to sit in one seat for a whole day, no ESL or special ed students have to fall through the cracks? I'd be ok with paying more in taxes. Why can't it be that simple?
That's the solution that I want. Can we demand it? Can we at least raise a ruckus? I don't know exactly how, but this is what I want for the city, the region, our kids, our community. I'm tired of watching all this happen, and I want to make change. Now: how?