Monday, February 2, 2015

Budgetary Briar Patch, Part 1: Pay Up

After months off, I am back on the blog because of one thing: I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore. The county budget is the issue of the day, and I have something to say about it. Here is the first part of my series, Budgetary Briar Patch. I hope that you enjoy it and that maybe it infuriates you at least a little bit. Welcome back to Schooled!

Martyrdom makes me gag. Unless someone has actually died for a cause (Martin Luther King, Jr., Benazir Bhutto, people like that), then I do not want to hear about what a selfless, noble soul he or she is. All people do the best that they can, and we are all humans capable of great actions and not-so-great actions.

This is the primary reason why I roll my eyes at many of the martyring articles about teachers that travel the Internet (“Here’s why you should pity us! Salaries! Bad parents! Bad kids! Waaaaah!”). These articles portray teachers as weak, pathetic souls giving up their sanity and worldly goods for The Children. I’m a good teacher, and I’m not like that (I’m still fairly sane most days, and I have some nice worldly goods).

The teachers I know are not like that either. They are as prone to whining and self-centeredness and goodness and selflessness as anyone else. And teachers are not weak. We are many things, but we are not weak, despite the level of cuteness we display in our classrooms on any given day.

So I hesitate to write this piece. I am going to write it, though, because it makes a point that needs to be made: The general public has little clue about what educating students actually costs, and it’s time to pay up.

Like most teachers, I spend a great deal of my own money on my classroom and on my students each year. The total varies from year to year, but it amounts to, in my case (by my husband’s conservative tallies), at least $2,000 a year. Please do not praise me for this. I spend that money for survival and so that I can look at myself in the mirror and know that I did the best job that I could when many of my students come from very impoverished circumstances.

Granted, some of that money is spent on my own version of obsessive-compulsive disorder. For example, my school could give me some of the Post-It Notes that I have students use for annotating text, but it could not give me the volume of them that I need nor could it handle the color-coding of them that rules my life. In addition, while the school might be able to give me one file folder for each student in the traditional beige, it cannot (and perhaps should not) provide me with the four-color system I have for each student, one for each strand of the English Common Core State Standards (reading, writing, listening/speaking, and language). I am part of the problem. I get it.

I spend money on hand-held whiteboards for kids, dry erase markers, large dry erase boards, bookshelves, student paper and pencils, laminating, chalk, more Kleenex (the good kind) than the average ICU unit uses in a year, chart paper, CDs, DVDs, VCRs, extension cords for everything, snacks for student breaks during state testing, and classroom d├ęcor as far as the eye can see. It’s all good. I’m happy to provide all of this for my students. I want them to have a positive, efficient, and welcoming environment, and I want that for myself, too.

If many of those items above could be considered “extras” (and we could debate that), know that much of what I spend money on are things that school should be able to provide. For example, during my first year of teaching, our building ran out of money for paper, and I had to spend my own money for paper on which to copy our county-mandated final exams (true story—you should have seen my husband’s face). In addition, because the schools in which I have taught usually do not have money for new books, I have bought more than a dozen class sets (a class set is 30-35 paperback copies) of various novels over the years for use in my room or in my building. Nearly every video clip I have ever shown in class? My money. Most office supplies or storage supplies in my classroom for the past 15 years? My money. Software, hardware, virus protection, TVs, and any other ancillary technology purchase that I am allowed to bring into a school building? My money.

I do not want pity or reimbursement, and God knows—in this climate—I am not asking for a raise. I am not even asking for a larger version of the laughable “tax break” I get for these expenditures. I don’t want you (the American taxpayer) to fund me. I want you to fund my job, the one you hired me to do. In other words, I want you to fund the children of your community when they are at school. I want you to pay up.  

You see, some (very few, but some) teachers will say, “Don’t spend your money on school. I used to do that, and you just can’t.” They make the sound argument that doing so lets the American public off the hook. By spending my money on the materials that the education budget should fund, I am making the schools appear to be functioning better than they actually are on the public funds we receive. My classroom is a clean and cute place to be, and much of that is not on your dime. I should let the room look like the money you are willing to spend on it. I should, but I can’t. The same concern for kids and professionalism that compels me to take up your slack is the same concern for kids and professionalism that is now telling you to pay up.

Right now, the schools in my county are in a dire situation. Unnecessary county government budget hijinks over the past decade have caused us to be in what is potentially the 8th year of massive cuts to the school budget. Our new governor is now part of the problem with state funds, too. Capital projects for dilapidated school buildings, repair of vehicles and technology—you name it—have been pushed off for years, with each year bringing more deterioration and, of course, ever increasing costs to fix any of it. Our school system leadership has been a model of sucking it up, dealing with the cuts, looking for new ways to cut costs every year, of being responsible stewards of public funds in a way that our county government has not been—shamefully, has not been at all.

The people who annually cry for “less government spending” and “less government waste” are flushing their public properties down the toilet and calling themselves “fiscal conservatives.” My voice alone may not be able to stop them, but I am calling them on this ridiculous (and cumulative) lack of civic responsibility as loudly and in as many forums as I can.

Pay up, America. This is your responsibility. These are your children and grandchildren and community members. You have been an irresponsible, slacking, bad citizen for long enough. Man up, and pay up.

At a recent county town hall budget forum, my husband and I laughed together at the father of two of my former students when he indicated that those of us advocating for public services like education would not spend our own money on those services ourselves. We chuckled (and my husband desperately wants me to send the guy an itemized list of everything we spent to educate two of his kids), but we laughed that nervous “Oh God, citizens really can be morons sometimes, can’t they?” laugh (the same laugh we all share when someone hands Sarah Palin the mic). That guy honestly had no clue. I am writing this piece to give folks a clue. So that you will pay up.

We have a great guy in our school system who has debated the teacher expenditure issue with me. He’s hardworking and hilarious, and I respect him a great deal. Years ago, teachers could buy our own laptops and use them in school (and I did that), but now that is prohibited because of various concerns about wifi and such but also because, as this kind and fiscally responsible guy says, “Sharon, we should be providing you with what you need at work. We are your employer. That’s our responsibility.”

He’s right. The system should be providing me with what I need. But the system can’t because the state and county governments we count on to make sure funding happens appropriately continually drop the ball. He’s right to want those elected officials to understand that things like my aged, self-immolating county laptop are their responsibility. He’s right, and he still believes you might come through. But I don’t live in that world. I want to live in that world. Please, may I live in that world? Pay up.

I will keep spending money on school regardless of what you do. But I am not going to be silent about these money matters anymore, and I am going to insist that you meet your governmental and ethical obligations to our kids. The stakes are too high, and the citizenry (both my own locally and our collective nationally) have been irresponsible for too long. Like I said, teachers are not weak.  I am not weak. And I’m coming for you. 

If I were you, I’d pay up.

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