At the Helm: Time to make hard decisions

By Scott Graves, Pilot staff writer January 17, 2009 01:29 pm
During the course of my  journalism career I’ve covered many beats, with public education being one of my favorites. No other beat can match it in terms of complexity, compassion, controversy and drama.

Now, as a parent with a daughter in kindergarten, the school issues and controversies this newspaper reports on hit closer to home.

It’s new territory for me.

However, my journalism experience gives me an edge over most parents – and educators. I’ve a broader understanding of the big picture of public education. And, I’m sad to say, the picture’s not pretty.

For the last 20 years, I’ve covered the good and the bad sides of public education. I’ve written stories about exemplary educators, innovative programs and student accomplishments. At the same time, I’ve reported on embattled superintendents, dysfunctional school boards, incompetent school administrators and teachers, not to mention vicious union/district negotiations.

One of the most difficult issues on the education beat is covering budget cuts. Not only because it involves lots of numbers (I’m not a fan of math), but because the cuts often strike deep – into the teachers’ pocketbooks and the students’ education.

By now we’ve all experienced first-hand the effects of the economic crisis. Families are stretching every dollar to make ends meet. The Brookings-Harbor School District – facing a $750,000 or more shortfall – is preparing to make drastic cuts to an already bare-bones budget.

And there’s no relief in sight: Educators are expecting more cuts, following the release of the governor’s proposes 2009-2011 budget, which is projected to be about $2 million below current service level costs.

One thing is certain: We’re going to lose programs and people. Which ones should be eliminated is the challenge that the superintendent’s budget committee, the union and, ultimately, the school board will face.

It’s a situation that can get ugly – fast. Fingers start pointing. Accusations start flying. Personal attacks are launched. Feelings get hurt.

Good fodder for the newspaper? Sure. But I hope it doesn’t come to that. Such in-fighting among school employees would engender little empathy from the public, whose tax dollars fund their paychecks.

So what’s the best solution?

I don’t have one. And neither do the school administrators, teachers and parents I’ve asked. It’s extremely frustrating to me – as a journalist and especially as a parent of a school-age child.

What kind of public education system will exist when my daughter is a fifth-grader? A 10th-grader?

For parents who haven’t been paying much attention  to the quality of the education their children are receiving, now is the time.

Don’t wait until the 11th hour – when the final budget cuts are being proposed to the school board. Participate in the budget process, which began earlier this week and is open to the public. Read the stories reported in the Pilot and share your opinions with school officials and in letters to the editor.

Superintendent John Garner, a newcomer to the community (but not to education), has asked everyone to participate in the process and approach it objectivity – not emotionally. That’s asking a lot, but I think it can be done. It must.

Our children’s futures depend on it.