The View From the Cheap Seats
By Jane Weinkrantz
When actor Steve Martin was still doing stand-up, he would sometimes begin his act by pointing up to the balcony and asking the audience up there, "Can you see up there?" After they shouted , "No!", Martin would shrug and gesture philosophically to the orchestra---"twenty dollars" and then point back to the balcony ----"ten dollars," thus summing up what all of us have known for a long time: you get what you pay for in this world.
Yet, that simple axiom seems to have eluded our Superintendent and Board who have cut 16.5 staff positions in the budget for the 2006/2007 school year. Initially, bookkeeping errors and miscalculations in aid from New York State put the district in a position that demanded budget cuts. Why the budget cuts should have been made most rapaciously in the area of teaching personnel and support staff is one question; why these changes are still proposed when the district's more current financial predictions include $1.5 million in state aid more than we received last year is another, more intriguing question. The rationale seems to be that laying off teachers will strengthen our fund balance. Do the residents of Plainview-Old Bethpage want a strong fund balance or a strong education for their children?
The existence of cuts is a cruel enough reality; the fact that preponderance of them come from programs designed to help students who are behind in their academic skills is downright brutal. In spite of its undisputed success, the Reading Recovery program for first graders who are weak readers is one target of the cuts. Likewise, the state-mandated Academic Intervention Services program for students with low standardized test scores has been reconfigured with staff cuts, making its future effectiveness questionable. At the high school level, the teacher staff of the In School Learning Center (ISLC) has been slashed and plans are being made to staff it with school administrators, a legally dubious plan that may or may not pass challenge. (Whether school administrators will assign students to the ISLC when they know they will only be making work for themselves bears some scrutiny, in my opinion.) The ISLC serves as a center for students who are being disciplined, dropped from their classes for poor attendance or in need of the secondary school version of a "time out." Although those outside the building think of ISLC as a place where students are sent for in-school suspension, it also serves as a place where a student who might have otherwise done something drastic can cool down. The teachers assigned to the ISLC get to know these kids and counsel them in making better choices. Yet, our proposed budget sees servicing that population as something frivolous and unnecessary.
If anything, the increasingly challenging state testing and graduation requirements should prompt the district to maintain the size of the faculty, if not augment it. Time magazine reports this week that the drop-out rate nationwide is approaching 30%. On Plainview-Old Bethpage's school report card, the graduation rate is 93%, including 78% of our special education students. How can we not recognize that money spent on enough teachers to attend to the needs of Plainview-Old Bethpage students, especially those who face academic challenges, translates into success in high school and in the four year colleges that the majority of our students attend after graduation? How can we ignore the fact that every standardized test reported on our school report card these days is a "high-stakes" test for our students and for the Plainview community? Yet, teachers who address the needs of those students who qualify for the Reading Recovery Program or Academic Intervention Services--- in other words, some of our most vulnerable students---were among those whose positions were cut. How long will it be before we see the results of those cuts in our test scores and graduation rates, not to mention in the frustration, pain and low self-esteem of our neediest learners?
Now, some figures that are not on New York State School Report Cards: number of consultants hired, number of administrators employed, number of professional contemplation opportunities offered (How many angels dance on the head of a pin in a classroom that employs portfolio assessment?) or number of staff development hours required. Presumably, these statistics are not part of the state's overall view of a district because they do not have a direct impact on student success. So why are these expenses preserved in our budget while the jobs of dedicated teachers are judged by those in control to be superfluous?
Morale in my school hit an all-time low this week when the first of our excessed teachers was officially notified by Plainview-Old Bethpage Central School District that her job is a casualty of the need for a strong fund balance. I heard someone say, "This isn't a fantasy. It's really happening." Yes, we really are doing these ugly things that hurt students, teachers and the community. It is really happening. I would call on all who care about the future of education in Plainview-Old Bethpage to stop it.
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