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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Great Bay View High School TP Crisis

or, wasting money by saving money

by folkbum

This is an actual email from my actual work email inbox yesterday, bold, exclamation point abuse, and all-caps in the original:
ATTENTION -- EVERYONE -- URGENT ISSUE!!

We NEED EVERYONE to bring a ROLL OF TOILET TISSUE -- starting TOMORROW -- there is NONE otherwise!!
This is not, in fact, a hoax or a last-days-of-school prank (i.e., on the eve of her retirement our principal is not planning to TP rival Bradley Tech and so needs a truckful). My school is flat out of toilet paper and flat out of money to buy any. If you want to be a good citizen and pick up a pack or two and swing them by the school today, people would love you, particularly the ladies.

You might, though, be thinking to yourself, Self, this seems ridiculous. You should try working there! And no doubt right about this point in the post someone further up the chain of command at MPS is getting irritated that I'm putting the business out there.

But here's the deal: The other day, I stated, perhaps too clearly, that my union and the district needed to sit down and work out some additional concessions, because, in the end, the district here is not the enemy in the current budget crisis. While it may doom my chances of ever being elected union president--not that I was thinking of running, mind you--it is something that I and a sizable minority of my peers feels needs saying. The board and the superintendent have been clear for months now that the gaping hole in the 2011-2012 district budget is squarely the fault of Gov. Walker and his allies in Madison, not teachers, and they have not required teachers to bear the full brunt of the deficit either. The budget for next year cuts administrative positions at a rate twice that of teaching positions. Similarly, they have made it equally clear that the long-term hole in the MPS budget is the fault of an inadequate and complicated state funding formula that doesn't serve the needs well of any district in the state.

But that doesn't mean that MPS has made wise decisions in the past or that the board and the administration can be absolved of all responsibility for the lack of TP at Bay View this morning. The sub-head for this post, I think, is a point that needs stressing, because it goes a long way toward explaining why my school is both out of TP and out of money to get any.

In last year's budget, the district made some deep and unwise cuts that looked, short-term, like a good way to save money. For example, they cut the entire department of education technology, replace the two-dozen or so represented technicians with less-expensive contractors. Which sounds good, until you realize that this has cost my school, literally, tens of thousands of dollars; like a fabled old mechanic who's the only one that can keep a machine running, the DET staffer formerly at our school had quite literally hand-coded software and jerry-rigged systems for years that were efficient and effective. We spent, for example, something in the neighborhood of $25,000 on a new student ID and tardy-tracking system. (Bizarrely, there is no district standard for this kind of thing; while the software that runs our attendance and grading systems has dead buttons and non-selectable menu items to suggest this functionality could be turned on, it is not.)

You may be doing the math in your head--$25,000 is a lot of two-ply.

MPS also rolled out a new Comprehensive Literacy Plan, with a big focus on saving money by consolidating around a single reading program. At the same time, that plan calls for a huge additional investment in paper. Not only are we hanging student work around the place, as we literacy teachers always do, but there's a new emphasis on a "print rich" environment in classrooms where every spare inch of wall and ceiling (yes, people, I was told this year to hang stuff from my classroom's ceiling) is to be covered in anchor charts and mentor texts and other buzzwordy teacher-created materials. So what did we run out of in April? Paper. Plain old copy paper. (Many props to our federal- and state-mandated "vendor" partners who moved funds around and bought us paper with federal stimulus money.)

You get the idea.

There's more: The latest word is that all "Metro Region" MPS high schools are being mandated to offer a seven-period day next year, after years of us all having been mandated to offer a four-block day. (The Metro regional executive reportedly hates block schedule and, near as we can tell, that may be the only reason why we're all switching, his capriciousness.) While many of you probably see no issue with making the change (hey, didn't we all grow up on the old system?) the four-block day is more efficient, with teachers teaching the equivalent of six units a year instead of five units, which is what a seven-period day allows. My principal estimates it will take five additional teachers--a half-million dollars we don't have in our budget for next year--to make the change work. Where will those teachers and that money come from? No one knows at this point.

(Bonus fact: the middle grades at our school--next year, we will be a 6-12 program--are mandated to teach 60-minute classes; a seven-period day for the high school means 50-minute classes. This seems like a problem, since classrooms and teachers are shared between the programs. The district's answer? "Make it work." Okay!)

So the Great Bay View TP Crisis is merely a symptom. MPS still has a lot of work to do on the administration side of the street to make some more sensible budget decisions on the small scale. A pension contribution or another year of wage freezes for teachers will go a long way toward helping MPS deal with the immediate fiscal crisis created by the draconian state budget. But on the small scale, the district needs to think about whether small short-term goosing of the budget is really going to save money, and what the ripple effects of its school micromanagement will be.

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