Local News: PWCS Budget Woes

Last week, while our school board was absorbed in the textbook adoption process, Superintendent Walts presented his budget for fiscal year 2012-2013 and was greeted with instant opprobrium. Why? Because he announced that our teachers would get neither a step increase nor a COLA (i.e., a cost of living adjustment) next year.

Let me summarize, first of all, my understanding of our county’s fiscal situation at this point in time. Number one, there’s a possibility that we will be losing ten million dollars of funding from the state — which, by the way, the superintendent didn’t even factor into his rough draft calculations. Number two, the amount of money Prince William County will have to pay into our teachers’ pension fund is about to increase by $30 million plus in part because of the nation’s sluggish economic growth (which impacts the investments made by VRS) and in part because – obviously – people are living longer after they retire. Number three, we are one of the fastest growing school divisions in the state thanks to the county’s friendly business environment, and that growth necessitates building more schools and expanding others.

Faced with the aforementioned new expenses, Walts felt he had no choice but to freeze teacher pay for the time being so he wouldn’t be forced to lay people off. In response, teachers in several schools staged “Work to Rule” protests. What that means, essentially, is that the protesting teachers agreed en mass to work only during their contracted hours (which, for a high school teacher, covers the hours from 7:15 AM to 2:15 PM). During the protest, they did not stay after school for any activities for which they are not usually paid. That meant no club meetings, no beyond-hours field trips, and no after-school tutoring sessions.

I have two general comments regarding the protests. First, I would like the county’s teachers to recognize that many people aren’t getting raises right now. Indeed, this idea that one is entitled to get an automatic COLA and step increase just for occupying a classroom for yet another year sounds completely foreign to many of us who work in the private sector. For your information, when the economy took a nose dive in 2008, I lost pay. My hourly rate stayed the same, but because our tutoring company was losing business, I didn’t net as many instructional hours. At the time, I would’ve given anything to have had my pay frozen (let alone increased).

Secondly, the “Work to Rule” protests were less than constructive (and I’m putting that very kindly). Many of my clients at work also depend upon after-school tutoring sessions to keep up. However frustrated you might be, denying struggling students the opportunity to get the after-hours help they need strikes me as extraordinarily selfish. The educational enterprise should be focused on the children first and foremost — not on the adults and their financial complaints.

But you know what? I’m feeling generous today, so I’m going to suggest that we try squeezing at least a COLA out of Walts’ budget. How could we do this? I don’t know for sure because I don’t have access to all the figures, but were I given the opportunity to examine the details, I’m sure I could find some luxuries that we could temporarily do without. For example:

  • Why is a school bus sent to my neighborhood to take kids to Gar-Field High? When I attended Gar-Field, I walked the 1.3 mile distance to school. Why can’t today’s students do the same? In other words, why not increase the county’s “walker distance” to 1.5 miles? That might cut down on our transportation costs — and as a bonus, we’d have fewer fat kids.
  • I notice that Walts set aside $15 million to reduce class sizes for every grade. Now, I love small classes as much as the next American educator; that is, in fact, why I work for my current employer. However, it might behoove us to bear in mind that the average class in Korea or Japan is larger than the average class in the States — and those countries routinely kick our butts on the TIMSS. Small classes are nice, but they’re evidently not a panacea.
  • Do we really need interactive white boards in our classrooms? They’re certainly snazzy, but back in the “bad old days,” we somehow managed to deliver a world-class education without them. Actually, in the past, all we needed were primers, pieces of chalk, and slates — or, if you were really desperate, a dirt floor and a stick.

As far as I’m concerned, the only things we really need are more classrooms – and schools – to accommodate our ballooning student population, a well-rounded, well-structured curriculum (including a decent selection of extra-curricular activities so our students are given plenty of opportunities to pursue their passions), and a staff of well-qualified, dedicated teachers. Everything else, I feel, is negotiable. So before we start talking about raising the property tax, let’s try a little harder to make some cuts.

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