Public School Cuts Run Deep
By Christian Piatt
Originally published in PULP
Call it schadenfreude, but I couldn’t help but smile when I read about Dr. John Covington, former Pueblo City Schools superintendent, having to contend with the ugly business of shutting down nearly half of Kansas City’s public schools. Granted, it was clear when he split town for the Midwest that he was entering a hot mess of a district.
But hey, when upward mobility calls, right?
Despite my sadistic need for karma to beat up Covington a little, the closure of 29 schools is nothing short of a crisis for children and families living in the city. Such a dire situation makes some of the recent developments in our own back yard a little easier to swallow.
Schools District 70 announced that, as of next year, it will be cutting back to four-day school weeks to try to balance the budget. Naturally, parents are concerned about the quality of their kids’ education, young ones taking the bus in the dark and what to do with the little buggers an extra day of the week when the rest of the world works.
Many parents in Pueblo are barely making ends meet as it is, particularly in outlying areas covered by District 70, and the challenge of paying for an extra day of child care every week might be the difference between making the car payment and giving it up to the bank. Obviously, the schools are trying to save money, so to stay open just to babysit would make no sense, but what to do?
As a vocal advocate that churches and community service groups should step up when there’s an identifiable need, this is a great opportunity to put words into real action. Some churches offer parents’ night out or daytime relief once a month or so for caregivers. But if retired, unemployed or underemployed congregants could provide a safe haven for children to play and continue learning, it might actually help all of us justify those big buildings that, too often, only get used on Sunday mornings.
The busing issue is more easily addressed. True, there might be days when the buses have to run in darkness or at least twilight, but how many parents are content to leave their children at a bus stop on their own, even in broad daylight? I realize that rural areas tend to create a climate where everyone knows everybody else, but given the fact that sexual crimes against children are usually committed by relatives or family friends, this is hardly an excuse for a lack of vigilance.
When I rode the bus to school – the city bus, mind you, not a school bus – in Dallas, my folks stayed with me until the bus came. Yes, it took time, but it also communicated to me that my safety was a priority. Sometimes we’d carpool and parents would take turns at this job, but even in the winter months when the bus ran into the evening, I knew there was always someone waiting for me on the other end.
Regarding the quality of education, the comments of a teacher friend of mine from District 70 makes the point well. She explained that, given busing schedules as they are now, combined with all the transitions kids have from one class or program to another, it’s hard for teachers to pack in all the curriculum-mandated material they’re expected to cover.
With the four-day schedule, she explained, teachers will still have the same number of contact hours in a week, but with one-fifth fewer transitions. This means longer periods of contact in the classroom, and, according to her, a better chance to cover important content than in a five-day system.
This still doesn’t point to the 800-pound gorilla in the room, the absurdity of a donut-shaped district the educators and administrators are struggling to manage. Meanwhile, Pueblo City Schools sit square in the middle of it all, with some of its schools much closer to District 70 facilities than other schools in their own district.
It’s understandable how reluctant either district may be to consider redrawing district lines or cost-sharing more than they already do, but considering what Kansas City schools are now facing, reshuffling the deck sounds like a much less bitter pill to swallow if funding continues to lag.
Finally, this still doesn’t address the other problem we have in Southern Colorado, which is the value – or lack of it – that we seem to place on public school funding. Ours is one of the absolute lowest in per-capita funding of public education compared to income, and within Colorado, our two districts are near the bottom of that miserable pile.
I understand the resistance to raising taxes, particularly when we’re all hurting financially. But the old adage, “you get what you pay for,” tells only part of the story when it comes to children’s minds. Actually, the lack of investment will have a negative ripple effect, for decades to come, in the form of overburdened social services, swelling criminal-justice dockets, teen pregnancies, dropouts and substance abuse growing unchecked.
Maybe the more appropriate saying is “pay now, or pay later.” The four-day week may be relatively good news, compared to what may be coming if we don’t step up to support public education. Unless we’re looking for John “Hatchet Man” Covington to come back our way and work similar magic for our kids, it’s time to make big changes while we still have a chance.