Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Have San Leandro schools solved their money problems?

I'm glad to see that the school district is financially sound. I haven't looked at a spread sheet recently, but the actions of school administration sure make it look like there's no money problem in the district.

Why else would the principal at Garfield Elementary have rejected a gift made by teachers to support the school crossing guard program? That's right, she returned the donation. San Leandro Teachers' Association, the Union representing San Leandro's 500 teachers, made a contribution to each of the elementary schools in the district to support the financially endangered school crossing guard programs. Most of the schools graciously accepted the gift, but apparently the Garfield Principal determined that the school has no need for the money.

At least I'd like to think that the contribution was rejected because of an improving district budget, because it's past time for teachers' salaries (among the lowest in Alameda County) to catch up with our neighbors. Although, I admit, the district has been sending out mixed messages. After all, teacher salaries were reduced last year by cutting a staff development day from the school calendar. And then, the district offered Muir teachers the opportunity to work that day for only 25% to 35% of their normal salary. (District to teachers: We want you to do the work, we just don't want to pay you for it.)

I guess it leaves me wondering, if the contribution weren't rejected because of the district's improving financial situation, then why would the contribution to Garfield be rejected? Could it be that the district now views teachers as social pariahs? You know, so despicable that they are unworthy of making charitable contributions? Akin to tobacco companies and alcohol companies? That doesn't seem like a strong basis for good staff relations and positive school climate.

I just can't believe that would be the truth. That would be a bit insulting. I'd much rather believe that a big offer for a pay raise to catch San Leandro teachers up with their neighbors is just around the corner.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

We are all bystanders

Like everyone else, I have been shocked by the story of the Richmond High School girl who was gang raped for two hours on campus during the homecoming dance. The more I read, the more angry I feel.

I can’t, nor do I want to, imagine the mindset of the attackers. As troubling are the reports of up to 20 bystanders who witnessed the attack, but did nothing to stop it. While those twenty people may very well be tormented with the knowledge that they should have acted to stop this terrorization, the story doesn’t end with them.

Ultimately, we (our communities, our leaders, and we citizens) could have stopped this attack. Stories about a decaying community and crumbling schools in Richmond, and countless communities in California, often the poorest and most diverse communities, have been in the newspaper for 15 years. But the politics of marginalization and denial have allowed us to simply watch while these communities fall apart. And desperate people do desperate things.

Writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, Kevin Fagan describes the Richmond attackers as a collection of drop-outs, former students and “mediocre students at best,” who were in the middle of an on-campus drinking binge. He wrote about the cultural environment that made their rage possible, including “the poverty-driven frustrations of inner-city Richmond,” the 9th most dangerous city in America where 18 percent of families live below poverty level.

This attack could have been prevented. The conditions that allowed for this attack were recognizable, and could have been corrected. If schools in “marginalized neighborhoods” were given appropriate resources, this attack may have not happened. During this era of slash-and-burn state budgets, there should at least be a re-direction of resources to support these most marginalized communities.

In a very real way, this attack was fueled by an under-funded budget. Our school communities at most risk should get more resources during challenging economic times, even if that means at the expense of better-off communities. But, instead, the budget gets cut. If they had more counselors, lower class sizes, more interventions, more security, or perhaps if they had just built a god-damned fence around the place and installed lights, this girl might not have been attacked.

According to all of the stories, the teachers at Richmond High are doing an extraordinary job helping students to pick up the pieces. Yet while I write this, West Contra Costa teachers are in the middle of an ugly contract fight. They already make $9,000 a year below the state average, and the district is asking for more cutbacks. Fagan’s article reported that one of the attackers had once thrown a flaming paper ball at a teacher in the classroom. Why would anyone want to teach in Richmond?

Are we really willing to stand by and watch districts like Richmond, Oakland, Compton and (name your community) blow up?

At some point during the next few months, we’ll start hearing about massive shortfalls in the state budget. Progressives will call for more revenue. Republicans will go hide in a cave, blocked by a sign that reads, “wake us up when the knives are sharp.” Democratic leaders will shrug their shoulders, and give in to another year of massive cuts, even though there are billions of dollars of potential tax revenue available. More communities will be destroyed. More lives will be shattered. More Richmonds.

And we’ll all be bystanders. Watching the attack but not doing anything to stop it. Again.