I have based my conduct as a town councilor on two principles: 1) not to speak unless I have something important to say and 2) to always tell you the truth as I see it. That’s what I am going to do now.
As I have said in newspaper editorials over the last few months, I do not support some of the actions taken by the schools. I do not agree that technology is worth more of an investment than teachers, and I do not believe that the use of technology is producing better-educated students.
I base my comments on 35 years in public school education and the last 10 years at the university level where my colleagues and I have seen a decrease in the ability of students to interpret and analyze what they read and write. Can they read for concrete detail? Yes. Can they understand underlying meaning? No. As for their vocabulary – best learned through reading – it’s abysmal.
Only the most persistent and motivated students succeed to the level of their own expectations. The others demonstrate little reading and writing proficiency beyond scanning on smart phones and researching on Google. So what is to be achieved by integrating more technology into a setting that would show better results from more reading, writing, and integrated discussion? Should our most important goal be to ensure that our students are more proficient at taking computerized tests so that they can make us look better than others? Or do we want them to be able to think critically so they can actually read and write intelligently?
I teach research-based professional writing in a computer classroom so I am more familiar than most with the benefits and disadvantages of technology. I could write a book about the way students can’t read or follow explicit written directions, about how they ignore the written handouts intended to provide additional explanation, how they cannot explain the meaning of the assigned reading rather than the concrete details, how they avoid using the advanced tools of professional research which require deeper pursuit of the written word. They regard Google as the answer to everything. My high school students of more than 25 years ago could do better.
But that’s not the most important point I want to make. Close behind my commitment to my own children, I have always been a teacher. Inspiring students to learn is my passion – sometimes in spite of themselves. In my opinion, that is the primary role of a teacher, and most teachers agree with that philosophy. They know that the students in front of them will sink or swim based on what they learn from inspiring teachers.
I value good teachers, and everyone sitting up here with me tonight does as well. There is a great deal of sympathy here for the Middletown teachers who have been disregarded and treated badly. There is no reasonable excuse for spending more than $1 million on technology and having no funds to support the teachers contract.
I see many teachers present at tonight’s meeting. How many teachers think that spending $1 million on technology at one time was the best use of funds?
It is interesting that the recent report issued this month by RIPEC (the R I Public Expenditure Council) concludes that the primary reason for the better performance of MA students is that the responsibility for decisions that impact the education in the schools belongs to the principals and school councils of the individual schools – school councils that include both parents AND teachers.
How many at the Middletown schools themselves – including the teachers – were asked if the investment in technology was the way to improve student performance? So how did it happen?
The TC was told that the school department needed $300,000 extra for FY 15 (which they received). Then they asked for $144,000 extra for FY16 (which they did not receive) to meet necessary expenses. Yet in the same year that they said they needed another $144,000, they found more than $1 million for technology. It makes one wonder.
The TC was told that policy called for the funds to be used for one-time purchases. But policy can be changed. As we all know, how they spend their money is up to them, so they bear full responsibility for how they use it – and they deserve both the praise and the criticism according to how they spend it. And of course they could have changed the policy.
The TC was told that the funds were restricted. In January, I asked the then Finance Director how much of the funding was transferred from lines in the operating budget. She responded in writing that $661,449 was reported by the school department as unspent surplus that was applied to the technology purchase. When I asked, she agreed with the following statement: The schools found $661,449 in surplus operating funds for technology, but they had no money to replace the librarian or to give the teachers a raise.
I will not even elaborate here about the school budget and the historical differences between inflated proposed budget lines, the minimally reduced budget lines which were approved by this council, and the much lower actual expenditures of the school department, sometimes in the thousands of dollars.
No wonder they can end up with a $661,000 surplus, not to mention the $182,000 they just received in Impact Aid which, with a policy change, could have been used to provide more after school support to improve mediocre test results that they claim are so important to address. And no wonder Town Council members ask so many questions. But that is another discussion. The discussion here is about the teachers contract.
Now, in order to fund the teachers contract, for which they made no provisions, the school department is faced with a budgetary crisis that they propose to transfer to the Town Council for a rescue.
Unfortunately, the Town Council doesn’t have the luxury of focusing on only one segment of the town. We must concern ourselves with all of the community, so it is very difficult to impose the burden of poor management on the entire town. The Town cannot sustain these kind of budget increases and serve everyone equally – the old, the young, and the in-between. Not everyone can easily absorb the additional expense of higher taxes, regardless of the state’s assessment about our ability to pay.
As for the contract itself, I do not regard this as a fair contract in comparison to the other bargaining units in the town who have sacrificed much for the benefit of the entire community. They deserve the appreciation of every taxpayer. But as I said before, the teachers have been treated badly, and now it falls to the TC to right the wrong.
So it is with great misgivings that I will vote to approve the proposed contract for the teachers. But I do so with a prediction that the school department will come back next year and the year after with similar budgetary requests that will finally become so burdensome that they will have no one to blame but themselves when regionalization becomes the only solution.