This is what education cuts really look like in rural America

The disease of ‘doing more with less’ spreads to Spooner, Wisconsin

Photo: Bill Thornley, Spooner Advocate

I distinctly remember getting the email a few weeks ago that my high school Spanish teacher would be laid off. I’ve been away from my northern Wisconsin home for ten years now, but the news still struck me with immense sadness and disappointment. Everything that I have become professionally can be attributed to this individual. I felt compelled to write to the school board on her behalf, and speak at a recent school board meeting. Back in my hometown, I soon realized that the loss of this great educator was just one manifestation of a bitter, divisive wave of contempt tearing at the fabric of this community. Things have since erupted.

Prayer vigils were held outside of Spooner High School this week. Soon after, 300 community members assembled with signs alongside a host of local news agencies, and a teacher was physically escorted from the school grounds. These are the types of striking visuals that usually accompany immense tragedy in a district. And, in a way, it has. Conflict over the perceived mistreatment of staff and alleged ‘bullying’ by the district’s new Superintendent have prompted an exodus of teachers and administrators from this small town of 2,500 residents. All told, the district has seen 16 resignations over the last year, four non-renewals due to budget constraints, and 29 part-time aids whose future with the district remains tenuous. While the conversation has grown increasingly vitriolic and personal, the debate needs to be a policy one.

Photo: Bill Thornley, Spooner Advocate

State aid to Spooner and other rural districts has been in steady decline over the past decade, with per-pupil spending expected to fall a further $150 this year in Governor Walker’s budget — or another $200,000 the district won’t see. While there has been a clear failure to adapt to the local culture by the incoming Superintendent (in a town with one grocery store, the preferred means of communication is not the press release), these clashes are the inevitable result of more endemic issues facing the state. A press release from the recently elected school board president John Hedlund outlines the overwhelming, and unenviable, task facing the school board:

“The 2014–15 school year began with a nearly $1 million deficit. The Board of Education has had a year full of difficult decisions. It is never easy to see well-respected and qualified staff leave an organization, and I understand why emotions may run high. The truth is, our school district cannot afford to operate as we have in previous years. Change isn’t always easy to accept, but we have to move our district forward so that our students continue to have access to quality education. We are affected locally by state and federal changes, making our decisions difficult.”

The breaking point is decidedly near for the students, parents, and community members in the district. Severe staff cuts to the high school’s famed Spanish program constituted a virtual tipping point in public perception. Democracy launched into full action, with alumni and current students writing to local newspapers about the effects of staffing cuts, the community standing at school board meetings to speak their two-minutes of state-mandated peace, and of course, all sides having their say on social media, a virtual theater for a full-on public relations war. Protestors are calling for the resignation of the Superintendent and the School Board.

Spooner teacher and wrestling coach Jon Griffith says an emotional goodbye to students. Photo: Bill Thornley, Spooner Advocate

Meanwhile, the district has launched a counter assault, challenging the voracity of the protestor’s claims, and shifting the debate outright — claiming the district’s compliance with the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and other state and federal mandates to be a main source of staff strife. The Administration’s attempt to politicize the debate is in part self-preservation, but is also merited. That state and federal decisions affect local communities like Spooner grows ever more apparent with each budget cycle.

The local tax levy portion of Spooner’s expected district revenue has grown to 71% — or $11,882,084 (2013/14) — up from approximately $5,000,000 in the 2000/01 school year. While a portion of this increase is the result of long-awaited new school construction (the district failed for over 10 years to pass a community referendum to build a new high school in place of its former dilapidated structure), the burden has shifted largely because of reduced state spending on rural education. All the while, a droning mantra hums in the background and spews, machine-like from the mouths of school administrators: “we must do more with less, we must do more with less, we must do more with less”.

Source: Spooner Area School District 2013/2014 Budget Presentation

There are demographic changes occurring across rural Wisconsin. Our communities are aging, and local tax bases are shrinking. Simultaneously, we have decided as a state that we want more local autonomy over our schools, but there is a local price to pay for that. If we refuse as a community to bear that cost, then the inevitable outcome is repeated human resource cuts that undermine district morale. This dynamic requires that we make crucial decisions in Madison and in D.C. that allow us to collectively share the burden of keeping our rural districts operating. We haven’t chosen that path. Instead, the drive for privatized education has prevailed in Madison, with voucher programs absorbing increasing portions of state funds.

If we are to stem the tide of rural decay in America, it will require a return to values we once held in Wisconsin — a state known for its rich tradition in progressive policy. Imagine if, as a community and as a state, that we said: “No, we fundamentally reject the premise that we must always be doing more with less”. Imagine if instead of hiring agents to ‘trim the fat’ (or ‘flush the toilet’, in the case of Spooner), that we sent a different type of ‘change agent’ to our local, state, and federal bodies — agents who understand that ensuring the same quality education that we were fortunate enough to recieve for the next generation of Spooner graduates requires the same investment now as it did then. Returning to a time where we, as a nation, elevate education and our nation’s teachers to their proper position in society is a vision both conservatives and liberals can, and should, get behind.

You can chronicle the ongoing debate in Spooner here:

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