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ESPs on the Firing Line

School Funding Crisis Nothing to Shake a Stick At

By Dave Arnold

I once heard a story about a group of soldiers in battle who were outnumbered and forced to retreat. In their haste, they lost their weapons and ammunition. Their escape also went awry as they soon found themselves surrounded by the enemy.

Their situation looked hopeless. One young private asked if they were going to surrender and the commanding officer replied, “No!” The officer picked up a stick and handed it to the private and said, “Point this at the enemy and say “bang, bang.” They might not notice the difference.” As dumb as this may sound, this is almost the point at which some of our schools are at today.

We Cannot Waver

Many of our school systems are operating on borrowed money with their backs to the wall. They are surrounded by debt and have limited options for funding, yet they refuse to retreat. Educators refuse to surrender the fight for quality schools. We will not forego our commitment to promote great public schools for every student -- no matter the odds against us.

We all know this is a fight we in education cannot lose. Even if it means pointing a stick as our only defense. We will never quit on our students.

Dire Situation

Several states are in a financial crisis and have not made any funding payments to their schools during this school year. We have all heard that California is near bankruptcy, but Illinois and several other states are not far behind. California has a debt of $24 billion. Illinois, where I’m from, has a $13 billion deficit and counting.

However, California has a population of approximately 37 million people while Illinois registers at about 13 million. That makes the residents of California having a deficit of roughly $648.64 per person while Illinois’ debt would be approximately $1000 per person. The state of Illinois now owes some school districts hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding, depending upon the school district size and programs offered.

Since the source of needed funds is somewhat in question at this time, schools are being forced to make cuts. One of Illinois Education Association’s UniServ directors, Marcus Albrecht, has been warning every teacher and education support professional (ESP) that this will be the year of the biggest reduction in force (RIF) that our union has ever seen.

Administrative Overhead

We have heard of some school districts with plans to reduce their ESP staff to less than 50 percent of what it is now. Marcus said at an IEA region council meeting that “in the past we have experienced waves of RIFs, but this time we’ve got a tsunami coming!”

I don’t know how it came about, but somehow it has become standard procedure at many schools to cut ESP staff first and then look at other areas. I’ve never run a business, but this is the direct opposite of my thinking. I think that I would first examine areas that would save me the most money rather than waste time whittling away a nickel and a dime at a time at areas that are vital to my survival. Schools cannot survive without ESPs.

It is rare that you hear of a school district reducing the number of administrators. In Illinois, the state issues a report card to students’ parents listing the average number of teachers and administrators a school has per 100 students. It also shows where their school district might be wasting money. The state report often clearly spells out to some school districts that they are wasting thousands of dollars on extra administrators.

ESPs First to Go

Yet, it is ESPs who are usually given first consideration during a RIF. I have heard rumors that some school districts eliminate custodial staff and have teachers clean their own classrooms. What about the bathrooms? Another rumor involves the elimination of lunch programs and cooking staff. In that scenario, students “brown bag it.” Then there’s the one calling for the elimination of bus service, forcing students to walk or ride to school with parents.

As Marcus says, “a tsunami is coming” and it is certain that a multitude of ESP will be swept away by RIFs. In some areas, the number of ESPs is determined by health and safety regulations. But, this assumes that the state’s health and safety departments will survive the tsunami themselves. They too are surrounded by crippling debt. And you can’t point a stick at a tsunami of debt and expect to survive.

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(Dave Arnold, a member of the Illinois Education Association, is a custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in Southern Illinois. He can be contacted at darnoldjanitor@yahoo.com.)

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NEA or its affiliates.


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