Thirteen Thousand Reasons

There’s a movement afoot in Seattle to suggest to our superintendent, Dr. Larry Nyland, what a better use of the $13,000 he referred to as “the smallest raise in the district” might be. Sure, when you’re getting over $300,000 a year in total compensation (annuity contributions, salary, benefits, $700/month car allowance) that $13,000 isn’t a heckuva lot of cheddar.

As you can imagine, lots of parent activists and other people with brains have any number of fine suggestions about what $13,000 means on the ground.

It’s quite parallel to the arguments being made about our state legislature, getting fined $100,000/day for failing to comply with the McCleary decision. In a $1.5 Billion (or, more accurately, $5.8 Billion) education budget, six figures a day looks like chump change.

I was awake on percentages day in math class. I know that these are not hearty slices of the education budget pie. These two instances: a cavalier attitude toward the pittance of a $13,000 raise and the paltry pocket change of $100,000/day in fines could make one think that these officials charged with the paramount duty of educating our children are too busy to screw around with the margins. They’re not worried about rounding errors. Nope. They are going to work on bigger pots of cash. Bigger by orders of magnitude. Right?

That’s why it’s absolutely crazy-making that when it actually comes to implementing things for our kids, the budget attitude is exactly the opposite.

A few weeks after the (late) start to the school year, the district announced that while our enrollment was up by 411 students — a whole elementary school’s worth of learners — the district was short on its forecast for number of students to actually enroll. We were at 98% of the expected headcount 10 days into a school year that started with a five day strike.

2% shy of the district’s projected enrollment. Marginal, right? Rounding error, right?

And yeah, it was $4.25 million shortfall in expected state funds to the district for students but the money is pegged to the student. It’s not as if the (47th in the nation) per-pupil state funds decreased. And, with $750 million in the general fund budget, $4.25 million is…okay…cross-multiply…divide….round to the nearest hundredths…almost there…0.56%. Or, if you’re more story-problem oriented, 42.5 days in contempt fines.

Peanuts, right?

Nope.

The second we knew that we were a few students shy of the predicted enrollment, the district went full-on Chicken Little on us.

The district decided that the shortfall would be immediately met through staffing changes, and so the district sent out a proposal that included position changes at over 30 schools. (Over one third of our schools, for you fraction-buffs out there.)

That is not 5% or 2% or 0.56% of our schools.

How many students had to shift to a different classroom because their teacher was reassigned? (This is not actually a rhetorical question. Has anyone done this math?)

How many Special Education students and English Language Learners — some of our most vulnerable scholars — lost the teacher or aide that they had started to build a relationship with? How many middle-schoolers got a different teacher for one period a day?

The majority of those schools either lost a staff member entirely or lost partial FTE of a staff member; some schools had vacancies that won’t be filled. A few schools gained a desperately-needed staff member, but that still resulted in a lot of shifting and confusion for students a few weeks into the year.

Of course, our old friend, the private funding for public education model, was able to swoop in and save a few positions. At a school in well-off neighborhood, the PTA can mobilize and save a job. The public outcry can spur a generous contribution so that a school can get $70,000 to save a teacher’s job.

As far as I know, no one in central administration who made the “rounding error” that left our budget 675 kids short has been reassigned. In fact, the 100 top-paid employees in the district (whose collective pay rose by $1,400,000 from 2012-13 to 2014-15) seem to be impervious to job insecurity.

As far as I know, nobody stopped and said, “With the strike getting the year off to a late start the most important thing is to get teachers and students settled into classrooms.” And then, you know, actually support that with concrete actions.

As far as I know, nobody said, “Well, we had 2% attrition because we didn’t bargain in good faith with our educators and let their contract run out after months of negotiations so one student in every two classrooms has instead been enrolled in private school, where this dysfunction isn’t rampant.”

As far as I know, you can’t retain the services of a law firm to represent the district to explore suing the teachers for striking for free. And yet, the district made such a move even before the teachers struck.

I didn’t hear “Oh, our students have had enough disruption.” I didn’t hear, “Our PTAs need to focus on critical fundraising for things the state doesn’t provide, like arts education or technology, rather than having their energies and resources diverted to retaining staff positions several weeks into the school year.”

Rather, the district went with a callous and out-of-touch response.

It’s not even a savvy-self interested response. You could call a press conference and deliver your raise to a school without a PTA. You could show up with $100,000 McCleary fine dollars and save a job at a school every single day. Take a bunch of pictures. Get it all over the instatwitfacegram universe. And you’d look like a modern-day Robin Hood and folks would gobble the pork in gratitude. They’d think be so relieved that someone cared that the question of whether the education budget is off by a couple billion dollars would recede because they saw some great public good accomplished with the crumbs.

$13,000 a year isn’t a lot of money when you make more than the mayor of Seattle or the governor of Washington. $13,000 a year is the difference between qualifying for free lunch or reduced-price lunch for a family of four.

$100,000/day isn’t a lot of money when you’re talking billions in your budget.  But almost three months into the McCleary fines, it would pay salaries and benefits for four times the number of teachers we cut.

And I don’t see this culture in the school buildings. I don’t see school librarians pitching 5% of the books because they get some wear and tear. They mend. I don’t see teachers being satisfied with 5% of their GenEd students not learning to read. They intervene. I don’t see principals or PTAs shrugging off things in the low five-figures as inconsequential. They hustle.

Our public officials have shown us that the only time they are really concerned about stewarding public funds is when  those monies impact kids.

When it’s their fines and their salaries? These tiny budget crumbs are inconsequential grains of sand.

When it’s classroom dollars? These tiny slivers blasted from the budget are shrapnel.

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