Sunday, February 12, 2012

What do we want? An agenda

On Thursday evening, I attended a forum (or rally) in support of a neighboring district’s schools – along with more than 600 parents, teachers, students and community members from around the region coming together to stand up and speak up for our schools. For me, a few themes emerged from the event: The first was that it was not just about that district's schools. It was about all of our schools. The second was that the problem facing school districts in upstate New York (like ours) is rooted in the way that state aid is distributed, and that as a consequence, kids in upstate districts are being systematically disadvantaged.

The third was that ordinary people like myself not only are aware (or becoming aware) of the inequities, but we also are willing to stand up and speak up against them.

I have been thinking a lot the last few days about what it means – what it actually means – to “stand up” and “speak up” for our schools. It is one thing to say that we want the unfairness to be addressed, but how does that happen? What do we do? Also, how do we find a way to stand together when there is already division among community members on what the problems are and how to solve them – as I wrote about in my previous post, there are parents and other residents in my district who believe that closing the elementary school that my daughter attends will close the budget gap without any other consequences (which in fact is not true).

Not to mention that there is also a lot of disillusionment about whether or not we can make a difference at all.

What is an agenda that we can all back together?

Here is mine:

1. The goal: Work together are parents, teachers, community members, and citizens to demand that our state legislators take the immediate, short-term action of releasing $250 million from competitive grants, and direct them to districts in need. This will make the difference for districts like ours and our neighbors in Unatego, which have been forced to consider cuts to important programs – Unatego is discussing the elimination of kindergarten, which is not state-mandated – and even school closures for the 2012-2013 academic year. What we can do: Get involved with efforts like Unatego United and Support Oneonta Schools or organize with groups like Parent Teacher Organizations or even just get together neighbors and friends. Get informed by reading and / or asking your neighbors and friends, then with others. Attend meetings of concerned citizens groups and of the Board of Education and Common Council, and ask questions and / or contribute your comments as a parent and community member. Write and send letters and / or sign Web-based petitions. (See my previous posts. Also, see the Facebook pages for Unatego United and Support Oneonta Schools.) One voice along might not be heard, but all of us speaking together will be.

2. The goal: Work together to put pressure our state legislators to reconsider the formula that determines how state aid is distributed to school districts in the first place. The formula disadvantages lower-wealth districts, such as ours in upstate New York. This is not about “saving” any particular school, but about saving all of our schools – that is, defending the right of every child in our state to a sound, basic education. It is a right that is being infringed upon – and, I am afraid, long has been. Our kids ought to be able to have opportunities that we ourselves had in our schools and that even our parents had – like programs in athletics, art and music, Advanced Placement courses, and kindergarten – and that kids in higher wealth districts take for granted. What we can do: Not only get involved and informed, but stay involved and informed. Vote.

3. The goal: Work together within our district and across our neighboring districts to develop a long-range plan to support strong schools and strong communities. I am a transplant to upstate New York, but I know that the schools and communities here have been in a near-chronic state of crisis. We need to take charge of what we can. On the one hand, in a place like where I live, I think it would be smart to recognize the significance of neighborhood schools in building and maintaining community, in the dollars and cents sense and in other senses, too. A school closure and / or layoffs might “save” a school district money, but think about what it will cost the entire community as families move, houses stand vacant, property values diminish, local businesses start to fade, and so on. It seems to me that efforts need to be coordinated to strengthen both the schools and the community. On the other hand, unless there is a sudden, but long-lasting change in demographic trends, schools will be closing: It might be a school within our district (and the criteria for which school is not as clear as some might think). Or it might be an entire central school in a smaller district, which puts pressure on the school or schools that begin receiving the displaced students. So, I think it might be smart to have conversations within districts and across districts. What we can do: Resolve to stay involved and informed for the years to come. Let my local school board and city aldermen and county executives, et al., know that I expect them not to back off, but to develop and act upon an intelligent plan for the next 1, 2, 5, 7, 10 years and so on. B/c I believe better governance comes from a strong opposition (and I believe temperamentally that is where I personally am better suited to be…), be strong in both my support for and criticism of the plans.

So, that is my agenda. What is yours?

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