The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

How to Help Schools Survive in Hard Times

on June 2, 2016

With today’s post I have gone out on a limb to give my own ideas of where school costs should be cut in hard times.  I must admit that I was motivated more by my own perceptions of how many school districts waste money than by the real and reprehensible situation of the Kansas public schools.  In my own experiences as a principal, and later as the superintendent of a small rural district, we received a modest amount of funds, voted upon in the early years by our community and later determined by the state on the size of our student enrollment.  But we made our funds go farther by not buyong any student workbooks, commercial teaching programs, and only very few new textbooks.  Our teachers were smart enough and experienced enough to create their own units and student assignments and to pull together the background  information for teaching science and social studies.  We also put more money into our library for new books and technology than most schools and kept it open during the noon hour, and at other times for teachers to send small groups there to do research. To teach reading–plus history and geography– we bought paperback copies of high quality literature that provided a wide range of topics and reading difficulty so that teachers could choose what their students needed and were interested in without depriving other teachers and their classes of what they needed.  We always had enough funds to cover all our students’ needs and to provide for some special materials that teachers requested, such as plants, fish and their tanks, and small animals to observe for science units.

According to an article in yesterday’s New York Times, supplemented by an editorial in today’s edition, the public schools in the state of Kansas are in dire straights as a result of budget cuts over the past few years. In many schools, especially those in high poverty areas, class sizes have increased significantly, learning programs have been eliminated, teachers laid off, and the number of school days reduced. In addition, much needed building repairs and regular upkeep routines have been neglected. No action has been taken to close and replace old and decrepit school buildings that may be dangerous to students and faculty members. Finally, the current school funding system appears to favor schools in wealthy communities.

Although the Times blames the state Governor and the Legislature for creating these problems in order to give tax cuts to the wealthy, and for the failure to act where it is necessary; I am not qualified to make any such judgments–at least, not publicly. On the other hand, as a seasoned school principal and a district superintendent for ten years, I feel qualified to make suggestions for school district economies that would alleviate the bad situations that now exist and also to name areas that should not be touched. But I must also make clear that most of my suggestions are meant to be temporary actions in times of crisis.

The basic role of any school is to serve and protect its students. But, at the same time, the core responsibility of a school district is to do whatever is necessary to enable its schools to fulfill that role. Ironically, some of the actions and structures kept in schools by tradition are unnecessary. When financial conditions improve, a district needs to reconsider what is necessary and what is a pointless luxury. It is then the duty of the state legislature to pass legislation that will provide the funds needed to enable schools to operate effectively. Here are my suggestions:

  1. Any school lay-offs should begin with employees who do not work directly with students or maintain essential school operations. District officials must first consider the necessity of members of their own staff and any outside consultants before layong off teachers, instructional aides, or school custodians.
  2. In a time of fiscal insufficiency a school district should terminate any contracts with standardized test providers. If summative tests must be given under state law, they can be designed, implemented and scored by the teachers of the students to be tested. If such testing is not required by state law, it should be suspended for the duration of the fiscal emergency.
  3. School districts should suspend the purchase of unnecessary classroom materials, such as workbooks and new textbooks. Teachers can design their own curricula and teaching materials. Old textbooks still physically intact can be used by students, and teachers can construct their own practice assignments.
  4. Competitive sports and other out of school activities should be suspended. They can be replaced by intramural sports that do not require specialized equipment or student transportation.
  5. Any school buildings determined to be unsafe for students and school staff members must be closed down until there are funds enough to repair or replace them.

At the same time that the above actions have been taken without damaging the needs and rights of students, districts have sometimes made the mistake of removing or reducing other programs and personnel that are essential to school functioning. One such program is the school library and its librarian. A fully functioning library with a trained librarian and up-to-date materials is essential for student learning and teacher assistance.

Finally, I have one more suggestion for schools to function in hard times: Enlist parents to volunteer for duties that do not include teaching or supervising students. They could help in the school lunchroom, make copies of materials for teachers, organize classroom materials, and post school rules, information notices, decorations, and student work in school hallways. Parents could also form committees to see what other help they could provide to teachers and students to make them feel better in hard times.

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