The vast majority of searching that led to this site over the past month has involved some variation of the Des Moines Public Schools and its fine arts cuts. Half of the district’s music teachers were on the chopping block. The news reported that nearly 80 classroom teachers were pink-slipped. I know that at least one was a string teacher, who just happen to teach in a lower-income area of town. I assume there are many more. The Board will finalize the excessing in May. Here is an update, even though it may be old news to some readers, and my comments based on what I have read. I could say much, much more, but I’d never finish and my brain would probably erupt into flames, with much smoke and ickyness.
1. The State of Iowa came up with some money for K-12.
The K-12 system seems to have gotten what the Governor promised them for this year. Moving right along…
2. Some of the fine arts cuts will be restored.
At a reduced level? What the heck does that mean? They can only fund a string quartet, a wind quintet and a drummer at each school? They’re going to merge schools? Students will have to compete for spots? The poorest schools get left out? The lowest scoring schools get left out? This smells like code for what I wrote about here: the district will surreptitiously find a way to justify the elimination at a future date by restricting enrollment to the point that offering it can no longer be justified financially. We’re still finding out exactly who won’t be there next year.
3. It appears that some of the people who were elected to find a solution to the mess are only interested in fault-finding and backbiting, even as they accuse others of the same. It is human nature to want to fire back immediately at what could be perceived as a personal attack. Our students are expecting us to act like the adults we claim to be. They are watching how this is being handled, and we need to be really careful what we teach them.
4. This will happen again next year, or a couple of years from now. Historically, when a program is targeted for elimination, it is eventually eliminated. Bank on it. At this point it’s merely a question of how and when.
5. No one is really interested in coming up with a permanent funding solution, besides deflecting the Board’s responsibility for its decisions onto the state legislature. Dumping the problem on the legislature doesn’t solve it, and the students can’t wait until it happens again for us to have a plan of action.
6. Roses to Senator Mike Gronstal for having the guts to call a spade a spade. He writes, “The truth is that the governor and the state Legislature repeatedly assured school districts … that K-12 school funding for the next school year would be at least the governor’s recommended levels.
“Ignoring those assurances, Des Moines school officials deliberately set out to scare parents, teachers and students with doomsday scenarios that were irresponsible, inflammatory and, well, pure fiction.
“…school officials conspired to unnecessarily scare families, teachers, parents and residents of Des Moines with irresponsible budget scenarios that included chilling stories of record-setting layoffs, the shuttering of popular programs and other flights of fancy.”
I’m glad he said it, not me, but he left out the statewide impact of decisions made in Des Moines. I’ve pointed out before that DMPS budget handling could be a major issue for residents of neighboring districts, who look to Des Moines to set precendent and provide leadership. For me, specifically, it doesn’t bode well for my district (Norwalk) ever getting a string program, even though the long-range plan is to reclassify as a 4-A district (we are currently the largest 3-A district in the state).
Board President Connie Boesen attempted to refute Sen. Gronstal’s assertions in her own letter to the editor (please link to her letter from his letter): “District officials clearly and repeatedly stated at community forums and other settings that the $30 million in budget reductions were based on two primary factors: the loss of all federal stimulus dollars ($14 million) and no backfill of the state’s 10 percent across the board cuts ($17 million).”
Counterpoint: Why was this even a point of discussion? The money to which she’s referring was already gone. We KNEW it wasn’t going to be there. Everyone was aware that the stimulus was one-time money. Everyone knew it was temporary. Something is seriously wrong with the bookkeeping if no one could see that there was a problem before the stimulus money or the previous budget cuts. Something doesn’t add up with the explanations. I can’t wrap my brain around this one. The money couldn’t be counted anymore now than two years ago, so how can you blame the budget cuts on it? The across-the-board cuts can’t be restored. Even if all the cuts were refunded, the money would revert to reserves, because that’s where it came from in the first place. The District seems to have no solid rationale for either the necessity or the depth of the cuts, because the financial situation is essentially the same as it was two years ago, save for the second across-the-board cut, which happened this fiscal year.
She continues: “Had the Legislature made more timely decisions on K-12 funding instead of waiting until the last moment, the district would not have had to plan for the worst. No “face to face” meeting … occurred where budget assurances were made.”
Counterpoint: The assurances were all over the news and newspapers, whether they were made in person or not. And — I may be wrong about this — but it seems that historically, the legislature waits until sometime in March to start working on the upcoming education bill. It has been reported that the budget process has been ongoing since well before Christmas. And the media was reporting aspects of the “worst case scenario” budget back in January, before the legislature convened. Those January reports mentioned some cuts to fine arts, but didn’t include the total decimation of elementary music.
And finally, Ms. Boesen writes: “Throughout the transparent budget process, our stakeholders learned the facts and became involved by making their voices heard at the Capitol — voices that played a critical role in final legislative action reducing our shortfall from $30 million to $11 million.”
Counterpoint: In fact, the student and parent “lobbyists” were asked to leave by Capitol police because they were making too much noise in violation of the “no music in the rotunda while the chambers are in session” rule. While it may have impressed upon the legislators the importance of keeping their funding promises, it’s sort of a stretch to say that the “lobbying” had much to do with the final dollar amount. It certainly had little to do with the programs that are scheduled to be cut. Since no one has yet produced a paper trail that would validate one position or the other, we are left to wonder what the real story is.
Counterpoint: Transparent? The unmoderated comments following Ms. Boesen’s letter don’t seem to indicate that. The Register reported just the opposite: “Also, at least one resident asked for greater transparency in the budgeting process. Jim Johnson, an organizer of AMOS [A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy], said he was discouraged when students came home last week with letters from their schools that outlined the district’s updated plans. He said when he called the superintendent, she told him a final plan didn’t exist.
“We did what you told us we needed to do,” Johnson said. “We lobbied. We e-mailed. We called … We are not just any citizen. We earned it. And to be told you can’t have that information is a slap in the face.”
Counterpoint: Facts? The only facts that are truly evident are that the DMPS is short on money, long on programs (ones that aren’t very important or fiscally responsible at this time) and has people in charge of finances who may not have a clear grasp of what education is all about. The complete axing of an entire program was not a transparent process. Entirely too many people were completely shocked at the news. If you’re going to use the words “transparent” and “facts” in the same sentence, you’d better be able to back it up with paper and numbers. I shake my head when people suggest with much hand-wringing that calling and emailing legislators will create the magical pot-o’-gold that every district covets. I come back to an earlier question: Why is it the legislature’s responsibility to solve the DMPS budget shortfall? And why is it necessary to pick and choose facts? Transparency means everything is viewable.
7. This is going to get worse. That guest editorial I mentioned earlier? I offered it to the Des Moines Register. It was rejected, with the explanation that it wasn’t newsworthy, that things could change, that nothing was final. If I didn’t still have some faith in journalism, I’d say it smelled like collusion. Unless the editors understood the same thing from the beginning that I did: the continuation of the programs had absolutely nothing to do with the available money. Except that next time, it won’t be just the elementary music programs. It’ll be the whole shebang. It won’t be just elementary PE, or special education or ESL teachers. It will be everything that doesn’t show up on a test.
The parents are not the problem. The students are not the problem. The teachers and their license specialties are not the problem. The legislature is not the problem. By process of elimination, that leaves district leadership. Part of the great thing about local school control is that spending decisions are made locally. But it also means that bad decisions are dealt with locally and leaders must be held accountable. Accountability is why we have elections. I hope that the voters in the DMPS will look carefully at who is setting budgets and policy for educating these kids who will be our next generation of leaders, workers, innovators, parents and teachers. Decide where the priorities should be and vote ’em.
Now. All this is easy for me to say. I don’t live in Des Moines. My kiddo probably isn’t going to be affected by today’s decisions. But for all I know, in five years, all the kids in my district will have been affected in some way by what DMPS does this year. Many, many people want to help effect a solution. But most of them can’t get information, or get someone to help organize a working group, or just someone to listen. I, for one, would like to learn more about the overall funding process and how programs are paid for. Knowing the process can help figure out the solution. Is DMPS leadership really willing to work with users and teachers to save one of its most important educational tools? The best way to refute and redeem yourselves is to work with us.
I’m really a pretty nice person. I can be much more tactful and diplomatic than I have been in this post. I promise I won’t bite the children. But I can help get things done. If you’re serious about getting something started, whether you are a DMPS employee, fired teacher, board member, parent with extreme leadership skills, local business person with contacts, doesn’t really matter, please email me. I’m not interested in arguing semantics. I’m interested in learning and helping save elementary music permanently. I’m tired of watching the threats against the program I cut my teeth in. It’s not about the money. It’s about the principle. Jim Brauninger’s legacy is at stake and this whole thing is just plain wrong. And I’m honestly not trying to be overly critical. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not in the loop and I don’t have a clue about all the details. There is more at work than anyone really knows. All I’m saying is that we need to get everything on the table, honestly, no-holds-barred, with all the numbers and facts and find a solution before it’s too late for the students.
As I was getting ready to log in to post this, I found out from a local news report that Sandy Tatge was one of the teachers who was let go. I had the great privilege of learning under her baton when she directed the Des Moines Youth Symphony during the early 1980s. She’s been at Roosevelt since then as well. So, this tells me that this doesn’t really have anything to do with the elementary orchestras either, and it doesn’t have anything to do with seniority, as the district is trying to claim.
Please excuse me while I go cry.