On March 3, 2016, the Stillwater Area School Board voted 5-2 to accept the Administration’s recommendation to close 3 elementary schools in our district. I was one of the 5 who cast my vote in the affirmative.
Closing a single school, let alone three of them, is every school district’s option of a last resort. In our school district, we had suffered 15 years of unstable, unreliable and insufficient funding from the State as well as a continuous loss of revenue due to declining enrollment. This amounted to cuts exceeding $20 million dollars that impacted student learning in significant and indelible ways.
I served on the Budget Adjustment Advisory Committee in 2011 that had to identify $10 million in cuts. We faced the reality of eliminating student programming, critical services and much needed support for our students and staff. The cumulative budget cuts had left our district in a place where we were well beyond the bone and were left looking squarely at the marrow.
This awareness did not make the difficult decision easier. Those schools, their history, the many memories that families cherished within those communities are irreplaceable. One parent shared recently that her child will no longer have the opportunity to attend the same elementary school that she and her child’s grandfather attended. She explained how, for people who have lived here for generations, the schools are everything.
No one denies the realities of grief associated with this loss. No School Board member or district administrator ever wants to make a decision like this, and mine is not the only heart that aches for the families who feel this loss so strongly.
One of the many reasons I came to the decision I did was because one day I want that parent’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren (as well as my own) to live in a Stillwater Area School District that offers access to the best education possible to each and every child who lives here.
An organization is simply not sustainable if it is not firmly planted on solid financial ground. Our district was facing the choice between operating costs for bricks and mortar or teachers and programming for our students. When forced to choose, I will always choose for our teachers and our students.
This persistent financial shortfall meant our students were not receiving the services they deserved. Depending on where students lived, their access to services and supports were vastly different. Having spent my entire professional career advocating for public education and believing that our public schools are the bedrock of our democracy, this was absolutely unacceptable to me.
Parents across the district – from our smaller elementary schools to our larger ones – stepped up and shared that their children were simply not receiving adequate services. Certain staff, whether a specialist, nurse or social worker, were stretched to the breaking point covering up to 3 schools a week. Such fragmented and inconsistent support is simply not what is best for our kids. Not providing our students with the resources they need when they need them is not only unfair to our kids, but it places additional undue burden on our teachers and staff who are already tasked with the herculean duty to serve our students.
The school board is responsible for using taxpayer dollars in the most responsible, most efficient and the most ethical way possible. Every single dollar must be used in the most prudent and judicious way it can. Our students and families deserved a school district that could prioritize student needs by aligning the limited, finite resources we had available.
Much of the discourse that followed this vote has not reflected what I believe to be the true character of this community. Our students deserve to have the adults in this community stay focused on what is best for our kids with an orientation toward the future so we can work together to make our district as strong as it can be for each and every child. For the individuals who have demonstrated they are more interested in character attacks, thinly veiled threats and hateful rhetoric, they are invited instead to be part of a collective effort for the greater good that seeks to change the system by building it up rather than obstructing its progress by trying to tear it down.
It would be easy for me to walk away and say that what I’ve been through is too difficult or not what I signed up for. Actually, it is what I signed up for. Elected officials are called to make incredibly difficult decisions, especially unpopular ones, in order to serve the greater good.
With an increased resolve to fight for our kids and their education, I recognize there is much work to be done at the systemic level to ensure that public education works for each and every child.
I believe more than ever that it is critically important that we do what we can to protect, invest in and fortify our public schools. I want to do my part to effect change at the State level and I will never stop fighting for our kids and their future.