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Taking it to the People

The impact of lost ESP jobs was detailed in a full-page newspaper article.

By Dave Arnold

After 37 education support professionals (ESP) belonging to the Southwestern Education Association in Jersey County, Illinois received layoff notices, they did something unexpected. They contacted their local newspaper — The Southwestern Journal -- and arranged for a full-page article to be published. It would simply show member photos, their years of service, and a detailed list of their duties, responsibilities, and contributions.

It was really something -- a simple, but highly effective rebuke to the budget crisis and educator layoffs affecting school districts across the country.

Informing the Public

These ESPs let the community know directly, tactfully, and sincerely what the potential impact of their absence would mean to schools and students.

“As loyal employees of the Southwestern School District, we are really concerned about the students,” said Michelle Lucker, Southwestern’s ESP membership chair, and who placed the article. “We have put our heart and souls into helping our students to have the best educational experience possible.”

The experience of the ESPs who were put on notice ranged from 1 to 40 years for a total of 373.5 years of collective experience, or, an average of 10 years per employee.

The article -- precise, factual, and blunt — contained the following list which addressed what each school and the district overall would be missing without their ESPs:

  • No teachers’ aides, except those who fulfill the needs of an individualized education plan.
  • Less one-on-one help for struggling students.
  • No one to consistently maintain our libraries.
  • An impact on student safety with fewer adults to supervise throughout the day.
  • Fewer principals and nurses who will affect student health and safety.
  • Fewer custodians and maintenance employees.
  • Fewer speech pathologists available to work with students needing speech services.
  • Technology and computer issues will not be addressed as quickly due to one of the specialist being reduced to part time.
  • Less community involvement due to band, art, and music being cut at the elementary level.
  • No fine arts or enrichment programs, which will affect learning and state standards being met.
  • Cuts in Title I and reading programs, fewer resources, and larger class sizes, which will result in less individualized attention for the students.
  • Astronomical fees will now have to be paid to assure your child receives a “free” education.

The Public Responds

The Southwestern ESPs certainly got the attention they were seeking. Journalists with television station KSDK in St. Louis, for example, interviewed some of the parents and reported on the budget cuts and layoffs at Southwestern. The report mentioned that school districts throughout Illinois were facing multi-million dollar deficits due to the state budget crisis.

The report also said the Southwestern School District “is trying to figure out how it will make up $2.5 million. Southwestern education leaders are considering cutting pre-K and extracurricular programs.”

This did not bode well with the parents who were interviewed.

“It isn't going to be solved just with cuts because we are just going to have to put dollars into the programs out of our pockets,” said one parent. Another said: “These are too many cuts we are talking about and this is so detrimental to our children.”

Finally, the reporter said, “parents blame Illinois government for the woes facing Southwestern and other area school districts. They said kids will continue to suffer unless the state steps in to prevent what they call a disaster.”

Budget cuts due are nothing new, but it’s getting to an extreme. For perspective on how things are today versus in the past, I consulted with my 94-year-old mother. She reminded me that the Great Depression in the 1930s was worse.

This is Our Time

But what does that say about the education crisis of today? My mother said that it was then, at their most poverty-stricken, when community members here in Brownstown where I grew up voted to build a new school. The timing could not have been worse, but community members valued education above all else.

My father became one of the school’s first board members. He believed in investing in education. So should his counterparts today.

More Dave's columns.

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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