Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Solving the budget and learning deficit, together

At the November SPFT membership meeting, the members present determined that we should go through a process of gathering input from members across the district about the just-then announced projected SPPS district budget deficit for 2010-11.

Building stewards and SPFT leaders took time in January and February to hold SPFT-community conversations about the SPPS budget in buildings and program sites. They brought over 61 unique ideas for cost-cutting or revenue-raising from our members to the February membership meeting to share. Our SPFT Executive Board looked at every idea and discussed them at length at our March meeting. We passed along every idea to Superintendent Valeria Silva and the SPFT Executive Board narrowed down the prioritized recommendations, based on the frequency with which they were mentioned or another relevant factor, to share with the Board of Education.

We owe much thanks to the building stewards and leaders who took time to have this important conversation with members. If our union and our members want to be a part of decision-making in St. Paul Public Schools, we must be part of the brain-storming and problem-solving as well. We will continue taking ideas and share them with the District until the final 2010-11 budget is passed.

This budget deficit was not created by a singular situation, and the solution will not be a singular one either. Every decision, whether complex, monumental and gut-wrenching like school closings or seemingly simple like no more dry erase markers, will have consequences.

Will it be possible to solve this financial deficit and better meet the needs of our students? Can we be just as mindful of the deficit that has built up in their education that doesn't get the same attention as the looming end to a fiscal year and the neatness of a balance sheet? How can we work together just as hard to insure that all of our students in St. Paul Public Schools have access to a high-quality, universal school experience that prepares them for a world that is evolving in front of us?
• Right now, students have a 100% chance of their hair stylist being properly licensed through a standards-based licensure program, but not a 100% chance of their teacher being properly licensed at the beginning of their teaching career.
• Right now, access to information doubles every 6 months because of technology, but our students are served in over 80 school libraries/media centers by just over a dozen full-time, licensed library-media specialists.
• Right now not a week goes by without some publication lamenting that there is an obesity epidemic in children, yet there is no guaranteed access to a licensed health/physical education specialist for elementary school children.

When will these deficits, and more that we could list and our members have the expertise to meet, be addressed as urgently? What role can our union members, together with our Board of Education and Superintendent Valeria Silva, play in addressing the learning needs of all our students so that we can proudly offer the best, high-quality, universal public school experience for every student in St. Paul?
It will be up to all of us to make sure that students are not merely still served as a result of these decisions, but that our students are actually better served whenever possible. If that is not possible, then we must be willing to admit that, and do everything we can collectively to remedy it.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sorrow from Central High School

The work that fills the days of all of us is put into perspective by the tragic death of a child, one of our students. Children are the reason we do any of this work: successful conferences, well-designed lesson plans, balancing a budget, negotiating professional working conditions. We do all of this work for those children and their families who trust us with their most precious resource.

When we lose a student, the rumors or innuendo swirling around what happened distract us from the profound loss we experience in a school, a district, and in our future. As the news spread about the accident that took a Central High School student’s life our first thoughts were of that student, then the family and school community, and then to the students we serve and would face the next day. For some of us our lessons today went exactly as planned, for others it was a teaching day they hope never to experience again. Regardless, many of us paused and looked at our students differently, maybe watched them walk to the bus a little longer than usual, or made an extra phone call home before ending a school day that we would never get back.

In high school I memorized a passage of Meditation XVII from John Donne, the metaphysical writer, because it was an assignment and I thought it was a cool piece of trivia to learn that one writer (Hemingway) could lift a line from another writer (Donne) and use it as his book title (For Whom the Bell Tolls). What I didn’t know is I would remember it because it speaks so accurately of our interconnectedness, in this case how all of us come together to make our district whole.

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

While it speaks to how we are made lesser by our losses, our losses can also remind us to redouble our efforts to do our best work preparing for conferences, delivering lessons, settling the budget, negotiating for our members, and making our profession stronger on behalf of the students and families we serve as the best and only way to fill that void.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Devastating Race to the Top news

Minnesota is not a finalist for the Phase 1 Race to the Top grant funds from the Federal Department of Education. The St. Paul Federation of Teachers first worked to learn about Race to the Top, we questioned it, we offered ideas and feedback to the Minnesota Department of Education at every opportunity and we decided to support Minnesota’s application. It is very disappointing that Minnesota was not named as a finalist today, yet we can be proud of the work we did on the application.

The restructuring we are required to do remains mandatory, but today's announcement means we will have to continue that work in the district with money we don’t have. The bolder innovation and further possibilities for innovation we just successfully negotiated into our contract are in serious financial jeopardy as a result.

With all of that said, this is not a moment to give up, but it is a moment to redouble our efforts and perhaps even find more creative solutions to funding our ideas—as we did with our teacher recruitment and preparation ideas that have become CareerTeacher, which is now funded with a 1-year planning grant from the AFT Innovation Fund. We will continue to pay attention to any next steps that evolve from this announcement or the Race to the Top program and determine what our involvement could be as well.

I am grateful for those who believed in our value in the discussion and application development.