Clarence’s Teachers are Indispensable, not Disposable

If we’re truly to come together as a community, the time to stop insulting Clarence’s teachers and students has come and gone. If we’re to have a civil, civic discussion about long-term solutions, taxpayer-parents will be at that table.

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The Students’ Voices

Yesterday, the Buffalo News published a letter to the editor by a Clarence resident who has been quite active in the local tea party movement. If there’s an issue in western New York in which the tea party people have inserted themselves, don’t get between her and a microphone or a reporter’s pen and pad. This week’s Clarence Bee also features two letters that are similar in content and tone.

If you can, make sure to read the Bee‘s heartbreaking profile of three teachers who are being fired due to the failure of the budget on May 21st. Far from being some abstract mathematical figure or union hack statistic, these are caring, nurturing educational professionals whose lives are being needlessly turned upside-down – not necessarily because the town of Clarence can’t afford these things, but because it chose not to. We can accept that result, but we don’t have to like it.

The letter in the News and the ones in this week’s Bee penned by incoming school board member Jason Lahti and resident Linda Liberta all strike one overarching tone: teachers are disposable and the sentiments of schoolkids and parents who voted “yes” do not matter.

Consider the letter in the News, where the author writes,

On the day of the election, students lined Main Street with “Yes” signs and shouts to anyone driving by. Eighteen-year-old students, who never paid a property tax in their life, were encouraged to vote yes.

They may never have paid a property tax, but they are students who have a direct, first-hand knowledge of their school and the programs that matter to them. I dare any one of the people who have animus towards the teachers or the students to look one of them in the eye and say the hateful things they dare to have the paper print for them.

Paying property tax is the prerequisite to expressing an opinion? A neighbor of mine who is a Canadian citizen and pays property taxes was unable to vote; completely disenfranchised despite paying  the school system thousands of dollars every year. However, a citizen who rents his Clarence home is allowed to vote against a tax they’ll never pay.

Perhaps ethics and respect should be a major part of the core curriculum in Clarence Schools.

Perhaps. They probably cut those from the budget.

Conciliation?

Turning to the Bee, Jason Lahti wrote of his pleasure at the rejection of the May 21st budget and, evidently, concomitant happiness over the resulting cuts in programs and personnel. Lahti wrote,

I believe that all stakeholders must now work together to maintain the quality of our schools. I hope that people in our community can get over their anger about being asked for a 9.8 percent tax increase and show their support for the revote budget.

There is not one whiff of conciliation towards the people who are angry that the original budget failed. Not a syllable of sympathy for the lost teachers, not a concern about the obliterated or reduced programs. Quite the contrary,

By the same token, I hope that the district personnel will realize that much of the community does not feel that they should be immune from the rapidly rising costs of their benefits. I hope that parents will play a bigger role by staying engaged throughout the year, and not just being vocal when reductions are announced.

As to the former of his two wishes, Mr. Lahti’s dismissive words against teachers are only slightly more diplomatic than his peers’; as to the latter, I think parents have indeed woken up, and they will play a bigger role- just not necessarily in the way that Mr. Lahti hopes.

Teachers as Disposable?

Linda Liberta is more blunt,

As a taxpayer, I am thrilled that the voice of the people has been heard. It is time for the teachers’ union to compromise and not use our children and programs as a pawn for their inability to compromise on their contract.

This letter is wrong in assuming that the union hasn’t already compromised, and otherwise blames the teachers for all of the district’s problems. This isn’t just rude and obnoxious, but factually incorrect.

The teachers and administrators must understand the reality of life. It is not up to the taxpayers to continue to fund their pension and health care. They need to agree to pay 28 percent of their health insurance instead of zero percent for administrators and 8 to 10 percent for teachers. They also need to look at appropriate retirement incentives for teachers making $90,000 to retire.

The pension program is completely outside of the teachers’ and administrators’ control.  It is set, operated, and regulated by Albany, and to blame local people for that is wrong and unfair. As for the demands that teachers pay a private sector contribution for health coverage, how do you expect to offer a significantly worse pay structure than other districts and attract or keep qualified teachers?

Retirement incentives were proposed by the union last year, as they are every year, but the writer is mistaken if she thinks this would result in some big savings. Incentives themselves cost money, recouped – if ever – far down the road. If you were to offer an incentive to certain teachers, as some have suggested, and then retain ten teachers for the cost of four veterans – you haven’t reduced the cost.  In fact, you’ve increased it as you simultaneously pay off the departed teachers and the salaries of the new hires. But Ms. Liberta bluntly explains her reasoning,

While I respect their profession, they work 180 days a year and have more time off than any other profession. The union refuses to compromise, thus putting our children on display on Main Street telling residents to vote yes.

I don’t see a whole lot of “respect” there. Teachers work much more than 180 days per year, and don’t just stop when the school bell rings. Why cheapen what they do? Why not ask a teacher what they accomplish when school is out? As for the kids on Main Street – first of all, they’re there every. single. year. Perhaps you never noticed them before. Secondly, who better to advocate for the preservation of the quality of their education than the students themselves? This is free speech. This is America. This is freedom and liberty and the voice of the taxpayer – those kids’ households pay taxes.

The programs do not need to be cut. The teachers must realize that they are disposable and the cuts need to be made in order for them to continue to work. There are plenty of graduating teachers that can be hired at half the cost and would welcome the opportunity to pay off their student loans. It is time that the voters vote down greed and vote in reality.

What greed? An incoming teacher makes about $40,000 per year. That’s not a lot of money in 2013. Now ask that teacher to pay 30% of their healthcare costs, and that $40,000 comes out to maybe 2/3 of that, after taxes and benefits. That’s what we pay professionals with masters’ degrees and certifications to educate the next generation of Americans? The equivalent of what someone makes taking calls for car insurance sales?

But the most insulting and reprehensible sentiment is the one that the teachers are “disposable”. Someone with tact would have likely used something less outrageous – like “fungible”. “Disposable” implies that they are garbage – that you can just throw them in the trash because they are completely without value. Never have I seen a more deplorable word used to describe hard-working, dedicated professionals who teach and inspire the next generation of Americans.

I guess the author couldn’t use fungible because that word implies replacement. The fired teachers aren’t being replaced.

Fired Teachers Speak

What do the fired teachers say? Are they bitter? Are they as hateful as those who insult them? Middle School English teacher and coach Matt Lauer:

But the reason I was so excited to come back is because I love the community, the school and the education I received here.

13-year veteran elementary school teacher Laura Chriswell:

Obviously, I am feeling disappointment and anger — just about everything that’s been said about teachers. I think that they’re being very unfair. Honestly, the last reason I went into this was to make money — I made more money in my previous job…

…I’m really sad for the students in the Clarence School District. My own kids had Clarence educations and are now in great universities. I know how competitive it can be.

Engineering and technology courses are the key to a bright future for smart kids in a knowledge-based economy. Sean Murray has been teaching and coaching in the district for 10 years:

Several courses within the Engineering and Technology Department, as well as other departments, will cease to exist. Many students who signed up for these courses for next year will instead be placed in massive study halls, likely in the cafeteria and auditorium. The sizes and locations of the study halls will not be conducive to learning. District employees will be paid for supervising instead of teaching…

…The [nationally recognized model program] Project Lead The Way pre-engineering courses will seemingly remain intact. However, we will be doing our PLTW engineering students a great disservice by not affording them opportunities to roll up their sleeves and acquire lab-based, hands-on experiences. Murray said science and technology are where most of the in-demand jobs are available and he has been dumbfounded by the cuts in his department.

He added that the technology and engineering courses offered in the high school have been so popular that the system could actually justify adding an instructor.

Due to budgetary issues, we obviously were not able to add an additional teacher to our staff. But this has already led to closed-out courses and interested students sent to study halls.

As for the accusation that he – and other teachers like him – are simply greedy,

My salary after 10 years at Clarence and with a master’s degree was less than $55,000 — not $90,000. Also, I elected not to take part in the health care plan nine of my 10 years. All things considered, I am a completely dedicated and well-trained district employee at a bargain price.

Are these three dedicated professionals – whose first thought is of the students’ well-being and the quality of their education – disposable?

Teachers like these are indispensable.

The people who successfully defeated the May 21st budget can have their gloat, but if they truly want the community to “come together” and reach longstanding solutions to systemic problems; if they want to convince the teachers or administrators to make additional concessions, calling them all  useless garbage is hardly the way to go about it.

Where Were the Marching Bands?

And one other thing – a letter writer to the Bee was upset that the marching bands were absent from this year’s Memorial Day parade, adding,

… your vindictiveness in withholding the school band music from the Memorial Day parade has cost you my continued support next time around.

The marching bands didn’t refuse to march out of vindictiveness.

They didn’t march because they no longer exist. The Middle School and High School marching bands ceased to exist in the 2012-2013 budget. But a contingent of dedicated music students did march in that parade – not out of spite or vindictiveness, but out of love. Love of country, love of community, and love of music.

The budget revote is June 18th. Help unite the community – vote yes.

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