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My Turn: Teacher pay is a matter of priorities

Posted: December 23, 2013 - 1:03am

Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich’s argument against salary increases for our teachers is that there’s no money in the budget.

“Whomever is doing the budget analysis for (Juneau Education Association) has suggested that there’s four million dollars out there for salaries. And what we want to do is to take them back into the budget, clarify what those budget categories are for, so we can be talking apples to apples and making sure that we are understanding the facts in the same way,” Gelbrich said, according to news reports.

Mr. Gelbrich’s argument that the public “doesn’t get it” is old, it’s insulting, and it’s wrong. In my third year on the district’s budget committee (FY 2013), I accepted Mr. Gelbrich’s challenge to find specific line items that could be reduced in place of the administration’s proposed cuts. The budget was shrinking, and the superintendent had proposed to cut some 40-odd positions.

I felt compelled to come up with a more efficient allocation of money, one that would prioritize “staff over stuff,” as someone said in public testimony. My daughter was in third grade. I had volunteered in her classroom weekly every year but one. I saw the load the teachers were bearing. I myself am a certified teacher, and I’m not proud to say I bailed early. It was too challenging, too depleting to try to meet the needs of so many students with so little respect, support and resources.

I wanted to respect Mr. Gelbrich’s vision as superintendent while minimizing the impact on the classroom that his proposed cuts would have. It was not impossible. In the end, working with my colleagues on the budget committee, we found $500,000 worth of non-personnel cuts and added back nine positions the public had begged us to spare.

We created our alternative proposal after the conclusion of the budget committee process, which provided no meaningful opportunity to amend the budget. Ultimately, seven of the nine public budget committee members signed the proposal. (One of the decliners said he was too busy to engage after the official end of our involvement, and the other agreed with our premise but preferred to present her own alternative.)

In the end, I learned a hard political lesson. We invested so much effort crafting a consensus proposal that we were left with no time to sell it to school board members. It failed 2-5, with Barbara Thurston and Mark Choate voting in support.

As parents, we all tell our kids, “We can’t afford that” when we really mean, “That’s not my highest priority.” A budget is a statement of priorities. What is most important to us? If it’s quality teaching, then we need to make quality teachers our top priority. To attract and retain quality teachers, we have to pay them a respectable wage and offer respectful working conditions. I haven’t had the energy to wade back into the numbers this year, but I know we can find the money to give our teachers a 2 percent raise.

I don’t want to give Gov. Sean Parnell a pass. For years he has promulgated the myth that public schools have too much money. His successful effort to put the squeeze on public education is flowing straight to local districts, where it’s creating division, anger, and anxiety — all of which weakens our schools and diminishes our communities.

It’s time to demand that our administration and school board re-examine their assumptions and recognize that teachers are our schools’ least expendable and most valuable resource. Then, together, we need to elevate this demand to the state level and stop the disturbing trend of putting public education at the bottom of the priority list.

• Rebecca Braun is former publisher-editor of the Alaska Budget Report, and a past member of the Harborview Elementary School site council and Juneau School District budget committee.

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