There are unmistakable signs of spring everywhere--street sweepers, motorcycles, ball games, children on bicycles and headlines about school staff cuts.
I was at the Cyrus School Board meeting Monday night, watching as rookie board members struggled with what is in reality a routine resolution placing teachers on unrequested leaves of absence as a result of uncertain funding for the next school year.
The process goes something like this. The school district doesn't know how much state aid it will receive for the next school year because the legislature is still working on the education funding bill. Additionally, enrollment is something of a fluid number, which adds to the problem since state aid is doled out on a per pupil basis. So, in order to meet contractual obligations with the teachers' union, local school boards pass a resolution to put a certain number of tenured teachers on unrequested leave, hoping that by the time the legislature is done, they will be able to hire most of those teachers back. The teachers are selected entirely on seniority, or in this case, lack thereof. Cuts to non-tenured and non-certified staff can be done without naming names, but the cuts themselves are every bit as unpleasant.
It is a nearly universal occurrence for public schools throughout Minnesota. Every paper I read has a front page story about the number of teachers being cut. Some districts are also cutting administration and programs. And that provides administrators and school board members with some degree of consolation, assuring themselves that while the cuts in their district hurt, they're not as deep as the cuts in another district.
It is a very morbid ritual, this yearly reshuffling of positions and rearranging of programs to make the numbers at the bottom of a spread sheet balance.
As the two newest members of the Cyrus school board asked their colleagues and administration several times, "what alternatives do we have?", I began to wonder which is better: To have an adequate program die a slow death of inadequate funding, or to build a top notch education program, budget be damned and go out in a blaze of glory?
Of course, administrators are quick to point out that when you don't pay attention to the budget, the state will take over your program and you lose local control.
I would argue that the state has in essence already taken control, what with underfunding of programs, issuing any number of mandates which could result in even less money if the local districts don't comply, and providing additional funds only if your teachers jump through the Q Comp hoops.
Education funding is a very complex thing and more money is only part of the answer to how best educate our children. The sad truth is that the legislature could allocate more money towards our public schools and school boards still could be forced to make cuts.
The complete answer to the problem will come when we take the time to build an education system based on best practice, not best budget.