How do you know when you're in a family? When you're asked to clean up messes you didn't make and pay for expenses you didn't incur.
That's what it's like to be a parent in most families. Increasingly, it's what it feels like to be a parent in California school districts, which have lost $18 billion in state funds over the past two budget cycles.
Of course, the budget news is not good throughout the entire state. City and county governments are cutting positions, reducing services, furloughing workers, trimming hours. If your city reduces summer programs and library hours, city residents suck it up. But schools are different.
Schools are where we send our beloved sons and daughters each morning with a backpack full of expectations for their success. We may never attend a city council meeting or even know our county supervisor. But if we have kids, we go to school. We know our principal, and we certainly know our teachers.
We see our individual schools and districts as united in a common goal – providing a better future for the children whose interests we share. We feel like family, and when you're family, you dig deeper. So we provide: hand sanitizer, Kleenex, classroom help and, yes, money from our own pockets, through auctions, fundraisers and parcel taxes, to pay for what the state budget is taking away.
But the budget crisis that is haunting our state and national leaders is eating away at our own paychecks.
Between furloughs, salary cuts and layoffs, we as parents have less to spend. We want to help, but we can no longer do it alone. In districts across the state, we are asking teachers to do what families do in a crisis: help with a solution. In many districts, that means reopening teacher compensation agreements with the view toward making sacrifices like furlough days, salary cuts and freezes in negotiated cost of living.
Some teachers have agreed to pitch in. Salary concessions have come up in the Sacramento City Unified district. Last year, teachers and staff in the San Juan Unified district agreed to cuts in health benefits.
Teachers in the Folsom Cordova, Twin Rivers and Natomas unified districts agreed to furloughs.
Thus far, Davis teachers have not followed suit even as the Davis school board considers layoffs for 80 teachers and credentialed staff. Last year, the Davis Teachers Association said "no" to a 2.5 percent pay cut proposed by the district's superintendent as a way of closing a multimillion dollar budget shortfall.
A one-time bailout from the federal government, two voter-approved city parcel taxes and another enthusiastic round of fundraising by the nonprofit Davis Schools Foundation saved the day. This year, the anticipated budget deficit is up to $5.6 million – nearly $2 million more than what it was last year. Still, Davis teachers have refused to even discuss salary concessions, citing a recent poll among members showing an even split on what is sure to be a polarizing issue.
Worse still, the association's current president explained to school board members recently that the district's teachers "take offense" when they are criticized for refusing to look at salary reductions, even though the jobs of colleagues hired as far back as 1999 may soon be on the line. Teachers, she said, "have been giving all this time" – through long hours, uncompensated prep time and out-of-pocket expenditures.
And those teachers who could face layoffs? "We don't really know them," she told the board. "Do we care about people? Yes. But we're not really a family."
For parents, the issue of teacher compensation is always complicated. We entrust the hopes and dreams of our sons and daughters to professionals who teach because they love kids, but also because they want a paycheck. We are miffed if we sense that the latter objective is emphasized over the first; that the second-most important adults in our kids' lives are doing for money what we think they should do for love.
But in many districts, the relationship between teachers and parents is also colored by the huge role parents play in the public schools. In towns like Davis, we are passionate about education and willing to put time, effort – and yes, money – into what we believe should be top-notch schools.
The teachers who work in our district have to put up with a steady infusion of parent involvement, but they also reap the benefits of all that energy: drivers for field trips, abundant classroom volunteers and chaperones, and all those parental checks that fund educational needs on the classroom, school and district level. We parents believe we are part of a family that wants the very best for our children. We feel betrayed when it seems that some family members are unwilling to do their part.
With all that is at stake for schools, now would seem as good a time as any for communities to have the conversation that comes up in every family when members aren't pulling their weight. It's a conversation about obligation and interdependence. If you take, you're also expected to give. We are all in this together. Those are family values.