OPINION | Hard times bring hard choices to teachers

It ’s not news that the economy is in trouble. What is surprising is that financial gurus still look for 1960-type theories to fix things. That world is history. Locally, the financial pinch left Marysville schools with a budget shortfall resulting in termination of a number of young teachers. That’s another 1960s fix that doesn’t work because Math and Science teachers tend to be among the youngest.

There isn’t a teacher alive who fails to recognize the unfairness in this. Not entrenched by years of service, new young teachers are the first to fall. In many ways, these youngsters are the best and brightest. When hired, they faced stiffer competition than old-timers did. They possess technological skills essential to modern education. They have the youthful vigor and stamina it takes to cope with today’s daunting classroom challenges. But they are always the first ones cut.

Local Education Associations across the state feel obliged to protect the positions and salaries of members who’ve paid association-dues the longest. That’s another 1960-type mind-set that’s biting the image and substance of public education on the hind-side just now. While the policy works well for entrenched teachers and protects the structure of salary schedules, it is perilous to younger teachers and damaging to education in general.

Unless you’re in a position of advantage, everyone seems to be taking a hit from the downturn. The top-tier is insulated by a system rigged to privatize profit and socialize loss. The investor-class continues to enjoy tax breaks while minimum wage earners lose their jobs. What’s happening to salaries and jobs within education is a not-so subtle version of that unfairness. Cutting beginning teachers’ positions to preserve top teaching jobs and salaries makes class sizes soar, teaching and learning suffer and public education takes a giant step backwards.

Warren Buffet and Bill Gates acted as beacons for economic fairness when they committed the bulk of their fortunes to helping people at the bottom of the world’s economy. Though Buffet’s and Gates’ billion-dollar incomes hardly compare with the top teachers’ salaries, their creative sharing might inspire wherever disparate salaries exist. In a profession as geared to public enlightenment and welfare as teaching is, one would think every measure would be explored before overloading classes by cutting staff.

This issue is personal. My wife and I were near the top of the salary schedule back when tax-opponents caused the district to fail eleven straight bond elections. So we packed up and headed off to Africa where teaching wages were low and life-adventures high. Marysville was able to retain three bright young teachers with money saved from granting leaves of absence for the two of us.

Superintendent Nyland and his staff have taken salary cuts. Every department’s budget is trimmed to the bone. But given the amount of funding shortfall, more cuts are necessary. Salaries, the biggest slice of the district’s budget pie-chart, still have to absorb the biggest cuts. The Teachers’ Association should respond with compassion for those whose jobs are at risk and with concern for quality of education. Axing young teachers does neither.

Here’s a crazy idea: Imagine the membership of a local education association voting to find a best way to keep from riffing teachers – RIF being an acronym for Reduction In Force. Imagine them hiring a CPA to work with the district to engineer a plan for steering teaching salaries into a “Temporary Emergency Salary Trust Account” that would re-apportion wages to ensure that no one was cut. The precious salary schedule would be kept but temporarily not enforced. People at the top would find their take-home pay from the trust account reduced a bit. People at the bottom, rather than be put on the street, would retain their jobs if they wished, at say, 90 percent of contracted amounts.

Reducing the argument to pure economic theory, the best way to fire up an economy is to put dollars in the hands of people (young teachers) who will spend them immediately, not invest in corporations with billions in cash reserves, or spend U.S. dollars on foreign travel (as I am prone to do).

This is just a dream. If School District and Trust Accounts showed different payouts, it would have the IRS’s knickers in a bind. Insecurity at the bottom of the salary schedule might cause young teachers to cut and run. But this is just a dream and those are only technicalities. The bottom line is that we’re being tested as a society and as a nation. The question being put to everyone from Fortune 500 CEOs to school teachers is, am I my brother’s keeper?

Obvious outcomes from retaining young teachers in hard economic times prove the social and economic rightness of being our brother’s keeper. Children benefit from the fresh energy of bright young men and women, jobs are saved, young families are secure, pay is immediately injected into local economies and class-loads are kept to a reasonable level. That should be enough reason for exploring other measures before giving young teachers the axe.

Comments may be sent to rgraef@frontier.com.

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