Etched into the building of one of the state’s largest high schools is a visual and literal representation of everything wrong with our public school system. Engraved into the stately stones are four statements, or “pillars” which represent our education leaders’ guiding principles. The first pillar you see is “athletics,” the next, “activities.” Like the sickly Dickensian orphan overshadowed by that big goon of a stone “acceptance” is “academics.” It’s the last stone you see.
These lean times are a perfect opportunity to reevaluate whether a public education system should be all things to all people. Currently, these granite-borne ideals of coach, counselor, employer and teacher stand on equal footing. They should not.
As our able leaders guide our school system through budget reductions, these philosophical colonnades potentially blind us from what should be our singular purpose: providing our students with a sound education which prepares them for the 21st century. Despite this, Natrona County School District has committed to avoiding layoffs, effectively hitching its wagon to retaining salaried positions. Consequently, academic excellence takes a back seat to job security.
I’m scratching my head to figure out how the district can close four schools based on declining enrollment, yet scramble to retain teachers when it has clearly acknowledged there are more teachers than there are children to teach. Is the district really honoring its commitment to producing world class minds when all its efforts seem focused on job preservation?
The plan is to take displaced teachers, hunt and peck for open positions within the district. Fair enough. However, many of those positions have limitations requiring specific qualifications and certifications. That could mean an early elementary teacher might be placed in a high school position, one in which may not be an area of a teacher’s strength nor their passion. Who benefits there? Certainly not the students. Worse, if there is not an appropriate position, teachers will be placed in a catch-all tutor job. A recent check on NCSD’s website lists only one tutor position in the entire district. Does the school district then create jobs in order to avoid layoffs?
More wonky still, this layoff allergy means retaining principal positions at four schools that, as of next September, will no longer exist. The average principal in Natrona County makes approximately $100,000. Do we retain those positions? Times four? On NCSD’s job website, there are currently zero principal positions advertised. The district shuttered those schools for a reason and if the board remains committed to retaining those positions, they might as well keep the schools open.
Wyoming has one of the highest per pupil funding in the country, as well as the highest teacher to student ratio (13:1), according to Ballotpedia. We also have a disproportionately high administrator per pupil rate in the country as well (1:146). By contrast, Arizona, a state firmly planted at the bottom of states which spend the least per pupil also produces four of the five top public high schools in the country. Spending more on education has not improved Wyoming’s test scores.
Money is not the answer and our funding crisis provides a legitimate basis for deflating this bloated budget. For too long our leaders have prioritized mortar over math. Job security over science. Humans over Humanities.
NCSD has no problem saving jobs by forcing square peg positions into round holes yet earlier this year it cut an entire district-wide program, band and orchestra in the elementary school, having determined those positions were “overstaffed.” (Maybe I’m missing something but I would argue placing displaced teachers in tutor positions to avoid layoffs constitutes overstaffing.) In defense, the district argued general music, a one-size-fits-all class, satisfies Wyoming’s fine and performing arts standards. It does not.
Each discipline — dance, music, theatre and visual arts—has specific benchmarks and one which cannot practically be covered in a general music class. Learning an instrument is a skill, one which develops long term critical thinking, discipline and a hefty dose of intellectual horse-power. It is a skill that transfers to math, science and language arts. One has to learn and practice the clarinet to reach benchmarks, not read about it in general music. Stripping this critical component of our curriculum is a grave disservice to the development of the agile minds our schools should be producing.
Job security should not be our North Star. I hope the trustees reconsider and recalibrate their “budget reduction strategies.” Let’s demolish those pillars, quit cutting curriculum corners to save jobs and focus on world class education.