Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Budget Cuts

Last night, I attended the finance committee meeting of our school Board. Yes, I went to a three-hour meeting about numbers that I didn’t have to attend. Sometimes I even amaze myself.

The reason I went is that rumors have been flying about a school closing next year. Now I know that they are not rumors. The question isn’t whether a school will be closed next year. The question is, which one. And also, will that be enough? At the moment it doesn’t look like it.

Our school district is in the middle of a perfect storm of financial crises. It’s been managing it’s money poorly for a decade and only last year did we finally vote enough of the old board out and get a new superintendent so that real changes could be made. But it should have been done a long time ago. There is a massive enrollment shift going on. With the exception of AJ’s class, which is a weird bubble, enrollment is in serious decline as the bumper crop of new residents from ten years ago have stayed and their kids have grown up. The upper grades are much bigger than the lower grades. The overall economy hasn’t helped either. But the biggest problem that wasn’t of our district’s own making is the State of Illinois, whose total lack of fiscal responsibility and dedication to education has them rescinding state funds right and left. They’ve drastically cut the per student aid our district gets AND they’ve taken our nearly a million in stimulus money that was supposed to be extra and are using it to pay those cut fees. Drastic spending cuts have already been made, but they are not enough.

This is bad news, but it’s news I already pretty much knew. What was good news is that I was reassured last night that with one exception, the people working on the fix are smart and qualified and have similar feelings about education as I do. I also felt better about a school closing after learning about empty classrooms in other schools – AJ’s school is so overcrowded that we didn’t believe that was the case. Moreover, the district has lost nearly 500 students in the last 5 years – that’s about the same number who attend AJ’s school. So it sounds like it makes sense. Unfortunately, based on what I heard last night, the school I think it makes the most sense to close is AJ’s.

Of greater concern, however is the “non-mandatory programs” also on the chopping block. No decisions have been made and no specific programs were listed last night, but I know that one of them is the gifted program. Illinois has lagged in gifted education support and recently cut all state funding to gifted programs of any kind. I know the district thinks it’s important, but given the small numbers of students participating, I think there’s a good chance that it might disappear.

And here’s the kicker. AJ came home from school yesterday ON FIRE. He spends Monday afternoons in the challenge program, and yesterday was his second meeting. His brain was running so fast that his mouth could barely keep up. He said, “It was really hard, but it made the time go REALLY fast because I had to think. I didn’t know school didn’t have to be boring.” Then he started asking if he could practice some harder spelling words and do a project on geography for fun. I remember this boy. I haven’t seen him in a while. It’s really nice to have him back.

I was so happy about it, that I emailed a thank-you note to his Challenge teacher this morning. She told me that he spent have the time reading a novel and talking about it (Michael Dahl’s The Word Eater) and the other half working on geometry problems with tangrams. She said that the tangram problems were a real struggle for him and that at first he didn’t think he could do it, but she encouraged him to keep trying and he figured it out on his own. It’s the first time he’s had to struggle at all in math. He was pumped and dying to learn more.

I realize it is impossible for schools to be all things to all students, but if the gifted program goes away, I really don’t know what I’ll do. I will not let him go back to the lethargy and resistance of last year, the result of boredom and a well-meaning teacher who just didn’t get him. Maybe I’ll push for acceleration. I’m not sure. But in any case, yesterday afternoon made all the testing angst of last spring, all the expense and anxiety, totally, one hundred percent worth it.

Moreover, if this does not demonstrate that gifted kids have “special needs,” I don’t know what does. Hooray for good teachers. Hooray for schools that try. And a pox on all governmental agencies who don’t look at the small pieces of the big picture.


My Kids' Mom said...

All the students have moved to Atlanta. Our school has 45 fifth graders and we're up to 120 kindergarteners. The school has been out hiring and in another week (6wks after school started) we have five new teachers starting and the redistribution of kids that will go with that. Both kids have a chance of getting new teachers- we haven't heard who has to move yet. I'm sorry they couldn't have predicted this surge in enrollment. (The economy really sucked kids from private schools this year.)

Jeanne said...

I'm glad to hear A.J. had a day when he wasn't bored.

That's always been my goal for gifted education--to give those kids some days they aren't so bored.

Elementary and middle school were difficult for Walker, but the good news is that the high school is more flexible with its offerings and so far, way more challenging.

FreshHell said...

Ugh. Fortunately, K-12 was not touched in the latest round of budget cuts in Virginia. I'm extremely grateful for this. I guess you have even more reason now to consider moving in the future but I'm happy to hear how "turned on" AJ is. And, yes, that all your efforts have not been for nothing.

Unfocused Me said...

Always delighted to see another way our state government (Our Motto: "Incompatint AND Corrupt!") has screwed its citizens in good times and bad.

Glad the program is starting off well for AJ.