Prominent Westchase parent Chris Barrett offered a critique of the "Work The Contract" week now under way in the Hillsborough County Public Schools. A onetime teacher, Barrett wonders why the teachers, School Board and administration did not act sooner to avert a financial crisis that resulted in impossible choices that can't help but affect kids.
Here's his take:
Hillsborough County teachers are underpaid. And the district was wrong to break its promise regarding pay raises/bonuses this year.
So I support the Teach to the Contract movement this week and a teachers' raise this year, right?
Here's the short answer: The Hillsborough School Board and Hillsborough Teachers Union have put district parents in an awful position this week. And it's time informed folks have the backbone to call them both out.
A few weeks ago a friend asked me to show up at a school board meeting and protest in support of teachers.
I couldn't, in good conscience, do it then.
Let's be clear here. Anyone who reads this and tells someone I don't support teachers or teachers' raises is misrepresenting the truth. My mother was a lifelong public school teacher in a Scranton, PA Title I school. She was the primary breadwinner in my childhood home. I lived teachers' sacrifices.
I was a high school teacher myself for a dozen years. I personally understand the sacrifices every dedicated teacher makes.
Over the summer the school board should have voted to keep its promise to the teachers. But they didn't. Now the teachers union is making a significant mistake this week. And I believe its actions will simply alienate district parents in the long run.
A year ago I told friends that I wouldn't be voting for school board incumbents. Despite being in office for years, none apparently could read – or took the time to learn to read – basic district financial statements. They were unaware the school district had been running a deficit for two years. They only found out when bond agencies lowered the district's bond rating, increasing the district's cost of borrowing.
Yet the incompetent incumbent for my part of the school district – who laid the financial foundation for the current mess – was reelected last November.
Yet now the teachers union is either showing its own ignorance of the budget process or it is not being honest with parents. They are asking parents to do something against their kids' best interests.
The union leadership will insist: There is waste at the top that can be cut to fund the teachers' raises.
This is a partial truth. There is some waste at the top. The district doesn't need principal coaches. If the district does, they're not hiring the right principals. Too often, when a high level administrator in the district proves incompetent in their position, instead of returning to the classroom or losing his/her job, a new position is created for them. And the school board needs to grow a backbone and shut down some small, under-attended schools and merge them with others.
But anyone who thinks there is $17 million available in the budget for the previously promised teachers' raises isn't paying attention to the details. We have a district that right now can't properly fund the replacement of air conditioning units, which are increasingly held together with string and duct tape (Remember August through September?). The district is still catching up on bus replacement, long neglected, which has caused repeated bus breakdowns. Music and arts programs are consistently underfunded and already saw steep cuts this past year.
So if the school board changes direction and honors the $17 million in promised raises/bonuses, where will that money come from?
If the teachers union answers honestly, they'll say this: busing, the physical plant and kids' classrooms, particularly the music and arts programs.
And this will disproportionately affect poor kids, whose schools don't have booster clubs or PTA organizations to help offset the cuts.
Even affluent schools will be affected. Magnet busing, including buses from places like Westchase to Robinson, could be on the chopping block. The AC unit in your kids' school will not be replaced when it needs to be. Your kids' marching band will not have needed instruments replaced.
The district can't deficit spend a third year or borrow the money. Credit agencies will further lower the district's bond ratings, making it even more expensive to borrow money, worsening the district's financial spiral.
By calling for the Teach to the Contract effort this week, the leadership of the teachers' union has shown its incompetence.
The only way the teachers' promised raises were going to happen is if the school board members voted to raise property taxes this past summer.
"So," you say, "why don't they just vote to raise taxes now to properly pay teachers?"
Now they can't. Governments like the school board operate on a fiscal year budget, which begins Oct. 1. The property tax collections that fund schools for 2018 are already being collected from the banks that hold your mortgage escrow (Remember the 4 percent discount for paying early in November?). Any tax increase the school board voted for today wouldn't produce an increase in property tax collections until November 2018.
So I'll repeat the question: where will the $17 million the union is demanding come from?
Does the leadership of the teachers union not understand basic budgeting? Any informed person would have pointed out that the time to hold a Teach to the Contract effort to rally parents to support the raises was last spring when the coming year's budget was being hammered out.
I would have enthusiastically shown up to a meeting to demand teachers' raises then.
Holding their contract protest now when the district can't raise further funds forces informed parents to choose between teachers or their kids' bus route; between teachers and the replacement of the school's outdated AC unit; or between teachers and the funding of their kids' band, orchestra or arts programs.
I can't be party to any movement, however well-intentioned, that realistically pits teachers against students, particularly the poorest ones.
So what can you do?
If you're a teacher, vote for more competent union leadership that understands the budget cycle.
And if you're a parent, make sure that your support for teachers goes beyond an easy social media post of "I support our teachers!"
It's time to make sure your vote reflects your willingness to raise your own property taxes to support your teachers.
Because they do deserve it.