By: Adam Sutton
Last month the Baltimore County Council hosted a budget hearing to solicit feedback from the community. Baltimore County Board of Education member Cheryl Pasteur wasted no time energizing the chamber with a full-throated, passionate appeal to accept the budget and support funding for our schools. What followed was a civics lesson in public engagement where people of all political persuasions and backgrounds offered a myriad of advice to the Council.
However, the moment of the night came when Vice Chair of the Baltimore County Board of Education, Julie Henn, took to the dais. As she began her remarks, members of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County (TABCO) rose in support as they had for other speakers throughout the evening. Uniquely, however, moments into Ms. Henn’s address, TABCO members sat down. Ms. Henn’s transgression was to say, “While students and teachers should, unequivocally, have every resource they need for success, I question whether the current budget reflects a balanced use of funds, given so many unmet needs in our system.”
Full disclosure: I am a dues paying member of TABCO although I am not apt to drape myself in TABCO’s signature red for public events.
That said, TABCO got it wrong last month, and we all should learn a lesson from it. Had TABCO waited 15 seconds, they would have heard Ms. Henn implore the County Council to remember that, “Our children need teachers – not more and more expensive tech.” How much more supportive of teachers does it get than having the Vice Chair of the school board asking to have funds reallocated to teachers? Ms. Henn’s point was, and remains, clear. The school budget—a major component of the county budget—is not prioritizing initiatives correctly. Any casual observer of the BCPS landscape knew she was referencing the STAT initiative that provides BCPS students with a personal laptop.
The lesson here is twofold. First, we must resist the urge to retreat to our tribe at the slightest provocation. By sitting down in protest, TABCO sent a message: the current budget’s allocation of funds is perfectly balanced, full stop. Debate or reflection are unnecessary. Unfortunately, it paints TABCO as an unwilling and even disingenuous partner in the budget process. The implication is that any dollar allocated to schools is unworthy of scrutiny. Even if millions of dollars are allocated to schools in totally ridiculous ways, TABCO will defend them. This is guaranteed to alienate teachers in the community they serve.
Second, we must accept when programming is serving neither the public’s nor our personal interests. Sitting down weakens TABCO’s ability to represent the interests of teachers. School officials and the county executive have viewed replacing expensive PCs with cheaper Chromebooks as the solution to this fiscal problem, and TABCO’s reaction last week said they agreed too. However, the crux of STAT’s problem is not the devices themselves; the problem is that by giving every student in grades 3-12 a personal laptop, we reduce the resources available to hire more teachers, provide more supports for social and emotional growth, or extend the school day so that we can provide these services without doing so in a haphazard fashion. The monetary costs of STAT are staggering, but the opportunity costs of STAT are demoralizing.
As an example, recently, the PTA of Stoneleigh Elementary was applauded for starting the “Morning Mile” program where students have an opportunity to begin their day with exercise and the community has a chance to unite together. It’s a wonderful program. Wouldn’t it be great if we could provide such a program at other schools? We can. However, if we don’t allow ourselves to consider that the budget misallocates funds to begin with, then we can never see the lost opportunities caused by the current budget.
The solution is right in front of us. Teachers are exhausted and over worked, and when a student is having suicidal thoughts or breaking down emotionally, the presence of a personal laptop isn’t helping. STAT is the expensive, wasteful government program the anti-tax crowd at the budget hearing bemoaned. If we stop and listen to each other, we can all be happier. Cutting STAT in half can save hundreds of millions of dollars over the next few years. That’s music to the ears of the small government conservatives. And, it’s an opportunity to align our school programming to suit the needs of students, which should be welcomed by teachers and the communities they serve.