Monday, March 23, 2009

Membership budget ideas

Members have been spending time at each membership meeting since January working to address the budget dilemma that faces our school district. When we began this conversation in January we had a complicated problem facing us, and it has only gotten more complicated since then. At our January membership meeting, we discussed what feasible budget reductions looked like. We talked about what it might mean to “keep cuts away from the classroom.” And we all agreed to take the discussions back to our buildings as homework for our February membership meeting.

In addition to the discussions we conscientiously brought back to our buildings, the district announced a series of tentative proposals to balance the budget, the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act was signed into law, and our Governor, Senate and House all announced their own budget ideas that would affect our work as well.

We spent considerable time at our February meeting just brainstorming our ideas, I promised to bring them to our Executive Board to review them and make recommendations. Today, the membership approved forwarding a few of those ideas for the Board's respectful consideration. I will present these humble ideas in a way that frames them amidst some of the best discussions we have generated in these membership meetings and in special member-group meetings in the last year. The conversations became comprehensive discussions on what we want a high quality experience to be in St. Paul Public Schools, so what started out as an exercise to offer value in the district budget discussions, because of the grace of good ideas, member involvement, and President Obama, may lead to an opportunity to use these member ideas to captain the ship into the rising tide.

The district budget deficit is real. The state budget deficit is real. The Federal stimulus package is temporary, but the St. Paul Federation of Teachers will treat this like any other obstacle we have had in our past and we will turn it into an opportunity. In the past when female teachers would get fired for getting married or showing their pregnancies, unions didn’t just complain—we did something about it. When teachers weren’t getting planning time, we didn’t just complain—we did something about it. When we were asked to teach in the boiler room or the janitor’s closet, we didn’t just complain—we did something about it. For 90 years this union, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, has been a model of progressive service and this budget crisis just serves as one more opportunity for that service.

Of the more than 50 ideas that came from members in the brainstorming process, some money-saving ideas have been sent to our respective bargaining teams for consideration in contract negotiations and some are going to the Professional Issues Committee so they can be discussed before being made public. Some were discarded and the following were approved by the membership at our March 23rd meeting to be respectfully presented to the Board of Education for their consideration as the ultimate authority and decision-making rests with them.
• Streamline administration
• Commit to a local superintendent search
• Revisit comprehensive transportation study to announce transportation reform or to announce that no change will be made
• Make buildings energy efficient with ARRA funding
• Cut outside consultants for professional development
• Evaluate the cost of sponsoring charter schools

Elected officials and others who have looked at the state and district budget can be forgiven for starting with cutting their way to balance, but we know because our family and consumer science teachers and math teachers among others have taught us, that a budget problem can look to revenue as well. We hope our work inspires them to explore the same combination of options. There are a few promising opportunities for us.

First, from work done with our members who are special education service providers, we have a group of members who are committed to forming an ad hoc committee to determine how to improve the billing work of special education service providers to increase revenue. We look forward to their solutions and we are extremely grateful for their commitment to provide this progressive service.

Next, today the members approved the St. Paul Federation of Teachers enrollment campaign to bring students to St. Paul Public Schools. We understand that, demographically, there is a declining student population in St. Paul. We understand that St. Paul has had a vibrant history of school choice. However, we believe we are the key to the world-class opportunities offered by St. Paul Public Schools, so this spring members of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers and our allies will be meeting with families across St. Paul. As we speak with families currently enrolled in St. Paul Public Schools, we will thank them and offer an outline for how to spend a fantastic and magnificent summer of learning in the city of St. Paul to capitalize on their school work. As we meet families not yet enrolled in St. Paul Public Schools we will invite them into a conversation about the work we do to meet the needs of every student. While we have been incubating this idea for almost 2 years, we believe that the strength of what our members have to offer the students of St. Paul coupled with conditions of the budget warrant significant invitations to our community to trust the work of St. Paul Public Schools.

Finally, as soon as possible St. Paul Public Schools should do what it takes to issue bonds for the $20 million per year Other Post-employment Benefits liability so that it stops being an annual liability.

I'm certain there's more where this came from. Members have indicated their willingness at each membership meeting to problem-solve the issues facing us as professionals. With a greater number of our stewards trained as Certified Member Rights Advocates, more members trained through the Teachers as Learners and Leaders program, and more involved in local, state and national committee work that matters, it seems we're just getting started on a whole new level.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

What would teachers do?

We have a lot of decisions to make in St. Paul Public Schools. There is a serious budget crisis to deal with, stimulus package money to spend directly on students in a way that saves jobs, no good news coming from our state capitol, and our school board needs to show some leadership and determine how to fill our superintendent vacancy and provide clear direction for that person.

All that being said, it is instructive to take a few minutes to wonder what would teachers do if we were in charge?

First, our SPPS budget crisis. Because teachers have been funding our classrooms for years, buying more than our fair share of books, supplies, stickers, inspirational posters and white board markers it would make a lot of sense to immediately turn over purchasing to a team of teachers.

Our educational assistants have been doing work that is growing exponentially in sophistication in the last 2 decades, yet remain low-wage workers and severely under insured. Somehow they manage to excel at their day jobs while juggling two or three others deep into their SPPS careers. Clearly, no one is better suited to navigate the simultaneous challenge in the stimulus package of raising student achievement while saving jobs like our EAs, and they'll most likely do it in at least 3 languages.

What would teachers do with our state capitol? For starters, a lesson in leadership is in order. Our social studies teachers could set examples from history of leaders who made tough choices, but stood by them and, just for fun, examples of leaders who failed to drum up one single, original idea and were summarily crushed by the populace. Our teachers would do this, naturally, entirely within the expectations of the Minnesota Academic Standards so that in April we could test all occupants of the capitol on their growth.

What would we do with this superintendent vacancy? You know, technically we do have contract language that states we can be directed to fill in for a colleague during our planning time. We have over 3,000 licensed teachers. If we each took an hour, and assumed 10 hour days, we could cover just over 300 days of work for the superintendent if we each just took one hour. If the board were to provide clear expectations, lesson plans as it were, we could just pick up where our colleague before us left off and leave a nice note for the person coming after us.

All of these huge decisions would still be coming at us at full speed. We'd just have each other to rely on to make them. So what would teachers do?