Hard times for schools are here

For whatever reason, I weep at parades. Predictably, my tears began to flow as a police-led parade of public school teachers turned right off of Taylor Road onto Euclid Heights Boulevard, where I was cheering, at an acceptable distance, with seven Monticello Middle School students who missed their school and missed their teachers.

It was the last day of an eerie, remote, and separate two months of learning and teaching from home. The end of a school year is a moment to celebrate hard work, progress, relationships, trust, freedom, and the future. This year was different, more subdued, with an overlay of worry and uncertainty. But we did it nonetheless—from the safe distance of automobiles decked out with balloons, signs, pink flamingos, and the Heights tiger. 

Monticello staff created a three-block-long car caravan. Each vehicle had the name of the teacher written on the car, along with words of encouragement, affection, and good cheer directed to the students they had been teaching and reaching, but not in person. Just being visible had to qualify as connection. It was both uplifting and devastating. It signified just how strange this whole thing is, and how important relationships are!

Teachers play a significant role in the lives of our children and community, and nothing can stop them from finding ways to continue the work that gives their lives meaning, supports their families, and contributes to the health and development of our young people. 

If you are not directly connected to our schools, it’s hard to know exactly how far teachers are willing to go to serve our children. Fortunately, the kids across the street, and the teaching staff that I work with to run the Reaching Heights summer music camp, give me valuable evidence. These music educators, like their peers, are passionate about education, willing to go the extra mile to reach their students, and determined to inspire their students to make the effort needed to excel—even in a pandemic. 

We need to stand by our teachers, because they stand by our kids. Our community benefits from their professionalism and dedication, despite, at times like this, overwhelming odds. Their can-do, must-do, how-can-we-make-it-work spirit requires us to invest in this cornerstone institution.

So where will we go from here?

We are facing a school-funding crisis. The levy defeat means there will be no new funds to solve budget problems, and there are plenty of them. State policy requires local school districts to pay private-school tuition for students who ask for a voucher. Before the pandemic, the district faced a financial chasm of $7.5 million inflicted by the relentless increase in voucher costs. Despite the pandemic, the Ohio Legislature did not stop the growth of vouchers, so next year our community’s annual voucher bill will top $10 million. To make things worse, the loss of state tax revenue caused the governor to cut $1.4 million in state funding to our district for the 2020 school year, and at least that much for the following year. 

How are we to cope with rising costs mandated by state policy and shrinking state funding? For one thing, making schools safer will certainly cost more.

The CARES Act offered some relief. It sent $1.9 million in federal aid to K–12 education in our community; more than $700,000 of it went to 11 private schools located within the CH-UH City School District, leaving only $1.2 million for public schools. This was not enough to make whole the $1.4 million loss of state funds for 2020. At the time of this writing, the U.S. Senate is sitting on the HEROES Act, which would send a desperately needed lifeline to public schools for the year ahead. Without it, we are toast!

We have to get back to school. We have to do it in new ways. We have to invest more in making it work, but the funds are not there. What are we willing to do to stanch the bleeding, to create real opportunity, to ensure an inspired solution to a deadly problem?

Without a substantial infusion of funds, next year’s end-of-school parade of cars carrying Monticello staff will be much shorter. Hard times are here.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a 40-year resident of Cleveland Heights and the former director of Reaching Heights. She is active in the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the League of Women Voters.

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Volume 13, Issue 7, Posted 1:38 PM, 07.01.2020