CHOOSING THE PROPER BATTLEFIELD

“Have you noticed how difficult it is just to get along in the world? If you’re no good at all in your job, people treat you badly and eventually you will be unemployed. And if you’re a little better than competent, everyone expects miracles from you, every single time. Like most of life, it’s a no-win situation. And if you dare to mention it, no matter how creatively you phrase your complaints, you are shunned as a whiner.”
Jeff Lindsay, Dexter Is Delicious

“It’s hard to have anything isn’t it? Rare to get it, hard to keep it. This is a damn slippery planet.”
Thomas Harris, Red Dragon

 

It’s 5 AM in the morning. What day is it? I’m not sure, but does it really matter? All the days have taken on a similarity of late. Sipping from a freshly poured cup of coffee, I power up the laptop and log into the banks web site.

Checking figures, I do the mental arithmetic – projecting the figures forward. We are still alright for a couple more months, but the feeling in my stomach doesn’t dissipate.

It’s been nearly two months since I’ve earned an actual paycheck. My job as a special event/wedding bartender was one of the first to fall victim to the corona crisis.

My work during the first quarter of the year is always slow, but we’d successfully navigated it. The calendar for the spring was looking especially full, and I was feeling optimistic about the future. Now…who knows? Some dates are starting to fill in for July and August, but will they stick?

Luckily, some of you have been extremely generous, and supportive of my writing. I’ve been able to do a little selling of insurance as well. By and large, though, my family’s financial survival has been reliant on my wife’s income. She’s an MNPS teacher and we are extremely thankful for Dr.Battle’s commitment to meeting payroll despite the shut down of schools. Not everybody has been as fortunate.

My position is not unique. Many have it even worse. Half a million people in Tennessee alone have been forced to file for unemployment. Many for the first time ever. I have to shake my head at the furor over low-income workers making more on unemployment than at their jobs. Is it really an issue if a regularly underpaid worker makes an extra $200 a week until the end of July? Are they purchasing swimming pools and gold plated walking sticks with this sudden influx of wealth? Or are they just being recognized for years of being underpaid?

Lost wages bring lifestyle changes. Vacations get canceled. Premium cable put on hold. Meal plans altered. Utilities can’t be cut off during the current crisis, but that doesn’t mean the meters aren’t continuing to run. Every household belt gets tightened and excesses get shed – even items that don’t feel like luxuries.

Some people have the fortune of being able to work from home, but even that comes with challenges. Lack of child care options means trying to balance work demands with child demands, in some cases requiring a reduction of work hours, and as a result earnings, in order to strike that balance.

Forced to the sideline are small business owners. What is often forgotten, is that small business owners frequently operate within the same tight margins as lower-income families. Just because a restaurant is packed on a Friday night does not translate to an owner driving a sports car and gorging on caviar. Many current owners will find it impossible to come back from this crisis.

Imagine being forced to the sideline for the public good, but forced to oversee a family business crater on your watch. Imagine the calendar days falling off and knowing that the debt you are incurring may never be retrievable. Few of us have ever put our name on the dotted line for a dream and as a result, assumed tens of thousands of dollars in liability. Now those folks are watching themselves, through no fault of their own, be crushed by those liabilities. Most small business owners already suffer from insomnia, but I’m sure these days are worse than most.

I log out of the banking site and click the Tennessean for a mixed bag of news. Among the stories, an op-ed piece by the heads of the three unions that serve MNPS employees. It’s a familiar piece – one that in normal times I would welcome – that reminds people of how much the city’s school district is, and has been, historically underfunded. These concerns are extremely valid,

Thousands of Nashville students are missing teachers in at least one class. Bus drivers who safely transport our students to and from school every day are paid far less than they deserve. Vitally important support staff, already some of the lowest-paid employees in metro government, are often forced to subsist on poverty wages or find second and third jobs to make ends meet.

While their recommendations are not unreasonable – increased property tax, tap the state’s rainy day fund, make sure charter schools absorb their fair share of financial burden, empower local government to find creative revenue streams – I would recommend proceeding with caution. Now is not the time to ask for more, no matter how worthy the ask.

Tennessee is looking at a shortfall of half a billion dollars in revenue. Nashville itself is facing a potential loss of $250 million in sales revenue. Most of that projected loss doesn’t even account for the worst-case scenario of a return by the virus, with a renewed ferocity, in the fall and winter. Local and state governments are still sorting through the economic wreckage from the current crisis. One that is still ongoing.

Meanwhile, across the state, conversations are taking place about repealing maintenance of effort legislation that prevents school budgets from being drastically reduced by municiple governments. There are plans to submit waivers for class size requirements – if students are going on split schedules and teachers are conducting online classes, maybe we don’t need as many teachers. People are looking for ways to circumvent IDEA requirements. Discussion is taking place around forced retirement of teachers over 55 – for their own safety of course – along with the relaxing of requirements for teacher licensure. Expect to see MOU’s between city governments and teachers unions to be revisited.

I am legitimately concerned that over the next several months we will see the safeguards and improvements earned by public schools and the unions over the past decades repealed and replaced to the detriment of both students and teachers. Now is not the time to ask for more, now is the time to protect the precious improvements that have been made and plan for the future. Especially in light of the fact that now more then ever people are becoming more aware than ever of the value of a strong public education system.

Some may recoil at this post and take it as just another instance of teachers being told to sit down and shut up. That’s not my point at all. I have in the past, and will continue to extoll the virtues of public education and the intense need to increase resources and compensation for our schools and teachers. The needs are immeasurable and inarguable.

I’m just counseling that in making the case for needed resources, leaders recognize that everyone is presently hurting. An argument of schools being underfunded and forced to make unfair sacrifices is likely to be answered with a retort of, “You know who is also underfunded and forced to make unwelcome sacrifices? Me.”

New York Magazine has a must-read article by Eliza Griswald on how the coronavirus is killing the middle class.

“This is worse and weirder than anything I’ve ever seen,” Heidi Shierholz, a director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute, said. Shierholz served as the chief economist at the Department of Labor from 2014 to 2017 and dealt firsthand with the slow recovery from the 2008 financial crisis. “We know how to wrap our brains around the bursting of an asset bubble of seven trillion dollars in the housing market, or the end of the dot-com boom,” she said. “But we don’t have practice in dealing with the fallout from this pandemic.”

These are strange days, devoid of any reliable roadmap.

Care must also be given not to needlessly alienate potential allies, per the union leaders,

While the mayor is technically maintaining, not cutting, school funding, the net result will be cuts anyway because some expenses like health insurance go up even when services stay the same. The amount Mayor Cooper has proposed does not include funding for the mid-year raise for school employees he proudly announced just months ago. Although district leaders have committed to find the funds for this raise even if Metro won’t, this means MNPS must find other ways to reduce other costs, a daunting task since our budgets have already been cut to the bone.

The mayor has frequently expressed his desire to increase funding for MNPS and specifically to address the shortcomings in teacher compensation. Unfortunately, the circumstances have robbed him of the choice to pursue those goals. There is no reason, to cast aspirations towards Mayor Cooper over the mid-year raises, we are blessed that district leadership is committed to honoring their promise and they are staying – that’s all that is important. I offer the reminder that conduct today influences the conduct of tomorrow.   Why needlessly push the mayor into an adversarial role that could potentially influence his decisions when the reins have been relaxed.

Ironically the Tennessean op-ed on the inability of MNPS to make further sacrifices ends with a call for others to make even further sacrifices.

The governor should also issue an executive order suspending state laws that hinder local government’s ability to effectively and creatively respond to our current economic challenges. This could give local government the freedom to set minimum wages, provide property tax relief for those who need it or require businesses to hire local residents for jobs created with government funds. 

Every one of those suggestions adds to the bottom line of small businesses that are already teetering on the edge and facing their own economic demise. They are not likely to take kindly to further obstacles, nor consider the schools a partner if enacted at this time.

Successful generals throughout history have preached the importance of picking the proper time and place when engaging your opponent. It’s important to pick a battlefield that lends itself to victory. They’ve also pointed out the importance of knowing when to hold ground and when to advance.

Equally important is the consideration of the unintended consequences of victory. Say that the call for more funding is heeded, and teacher raises of 2% are awarded. What happens when the economy takes another hit later in the year? Is the extra $50 a paycheck worth the potential loss of employment by a fellow teacher or para-pro? The discontinuing of a successful program currently funded? Those are the questions that need asking.

MNPS and I have a lot in uncommon. Both of us have been under-funded for decades. Both of us have been able to survive and in some instances thrive despite being underfunded. Both of thought we were heading towards more stable ground, but are now being asked to make more sacrifices. Sacrifices neither of us want to make. Both of us will find a way to succeed despite our limited current options. I feel you MNPS, as do many others, but such is the reality of our new abnormal.

RANDOM THOUGHTS

I’m so confused! Yesterday ChalkbeatTN published an article outlining how Tennessee is expected to pay it’s new testing vendor $15.8 million despite the cancelation of this year’s TNReady. But that doesn’t jibe with what I read earlier in the day in the Chiefs For Change/John Hopkins University report on school reopening recommendations where they lavish praise on Ms. Scwinn for her ability to recuperate and redirect, the funds paid to Tennessee’s state testing vendor. They go on to recommend that all states should follow suit with test publishers, so as to deploy the funds towards immediate teaching and learning needs. Hmmm…surely they are aware that the majority of testing is paid with federal dollars and repurposing isn’t really an option.

If I was Ms. Schwinn, what I’d work on recouping is my membership dues for Chiefs For Change. This is the second time in as many months that their publishing praise has opened the door to revealing potential conflicts for her. They are not really helping an already troubled reign.

When is a reorganization and downsizing not really a reorganization and downsizing? ChalkbeatCO has an interesting article today that is particularly relevant to Nashville. Last year, after a three-day teacher strike, Superintendent Susana Cordova said she would cut $17 million and 150 positions from the Denver Public Schools central office. The district claimed they cut millions of dollars in staff positions and saved millions more through consolidating different functions. But upon closer inspection, some questions arose. Per Chalkbeat,

Retired Denver teacher Margaret Bobb, filed several open records requests in search of information about the administrative cuts. She spent over a year analyzing the data, and recently posted her findings on social media.

Bobb compared a list of people whose jobs were cut to a list of people who currently work in the central office. She found that more than 90 administrators who were cut are still there. In addition to getting new jobs and titles, she found that many of them got raises.

Hmmm…MNPS is in the midst of a reorganization of central office, one that hopefully won’t serve as a reflection to what transpired out west.

Next week will be “responsible retrieval” time for MNPS staff. Teachers and families will be given an opportunity to responsibly retrieve personal items from schools. Teachers will also pack up much of their classroom. To say the planning for this event has been a CF, only serves to give CF’s a bad name. I’m loathed to give any more information other than to direct questions towards individual principals and MNEA. MNEA has a great deal of information up on their Facebook page including this message from Dr. Battle,

“Your health and safety are the highest priority, and to be clear, this opportunity is geared towards retrieving belongings not conducting the traditional close out tasks. While many of you may choose to complete all closeout tasks while on campus, it is not a requirement. Staff won’t be negatively impacted if they choose not to participate in this process, but please be in in contact with your principal so they can plan accordingly.” -Dr. Adrienne Battle, Director of Schools (5/11/20)

One vicious rumor that I am hearing – hopefully it’s not true – is that some elementary principals are directing teachers to box up the Journey’s textbooks and get rid of them. Surely not.

MNPS is currently looking at some options for consolidating underutilized schools. While this is never a popular conversation, the current budget crunch makes it a necessary one. Last night I watched a community meeting where board members Christiane Buggs and Sharon Gentry attempted to answer questions around the proposed action. Buggs did very well, and I’d like to say Gentry did as well, but unfortunately, it quickly became evident that she had not been as engaged with community members in past at their preferred level. It was particularly troubling when she incapable of answering a question involving feeder patterns to White’s Creek HS without an uncomfortable scramble for notes, and even then it wasn’t complete.

Luckily for the District 1 community, new leadership is starting to emerge. School Board candidate Robert Taylor has been central to the discussion since the proposal was announced. In the wake of yesterday’s meeting, he’s posted his thoughts and recommendations going forth. It’s a nuanced look at the subject through a solution-oriented lens. Not all of his ideas are feasible and some would require more spending than savings, but still, pretty impressive. Should Taylor secure a seat on the school board, it would be a win for the residents of District 1.

Under the leadership of former MNPS administrator Katie Cour, the Nashville Public Education Foundation has become a force of good as opposed to in the past where it often served as a tool for rogue school board members, the chamber of commerce, and local public education disruptors. This week they published the latest version of their annual Bridges to Completion report. The report delivers an in-depth look at graduation rates at MNPS high schools and what happens afterward. It’s well done and filled with a plethora of information.

Personally, I would like to see more focus shone on students who opt for military service after graduation and numbers in regard to students completing industry certifications. The inclusion of those numbers would provide a more robust and truthful picture of local high schools. I’m told that the inclusion of those numbers is being considered for future editions.

It’s equally important to note that the numbers in this report align with national numbers in regard to students enrolling in a community college earning a degree – most quit before reaching degree status. Yet Tennessee Promise steers many students towards enrollment in community colleges. For MNPS, 21% of 2018’s graduates enrolled in a community college, by far the most popular post-secondary destination, though that number is down from 2016 when it was 25%.  This should be a subject for further discussion.

That’s it for now. Oh…but please don’t think that I’m done with the story about Katie Houghtlin, the TNDOE Chief who was hired to protect the mental and physical health of Tennessee’s school kids who failed to protect the mental and physical health of those who served under her. Reportedly Commissioner Schwinn is deeply saddened by what has “happened to Houghtlin”. And feels her demotion is a great loss for the TNDOE and the state because they were “killing it” and…well…bullies are a dying breed and we need to preserve the ones we have. The first part of that last statement are reportedly her words, the latter mine. But we’ve got all next week to talk about that.

If you’re looking for a smile, check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page, where we work to accentuate the positive.

If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to deliver is always welcome.

A huge shout out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do and without you, I would have been forced to quit long ago. It is truly appreciated and keeps the bill collectors happy.

If you so desire to join the rank of donors, you can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Or you can hit up my Venmo account which is Thomas-Weber-10. I don’t need much – even $5 would help – but if you think what I do has value, a little help is always greatly appreciated, especially this time of year when my contracted work is a little slow. Not begging, just saying.

Make sure you don’t leave before answering this week’s poll questions.

 

 

 



Categories: Education

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