It’s The System, Stupid

March 16th, 2005

Call it what you will, justify it all you want, when you get a pink slip (even when it’s printed on white paper) it will still feel like you aren’t good enough. It will feel like all of your work has been for nothing. Those late nights you stayed to get the last little bit finished? Meaningless. Those hours that you poured over material for tomorrow, making sure everything is perfect and ready? Insignificant. All the lunch hours you didn’t eat in favor of staying at your job to help out those people that desperately needed your help? You should have gone to SubWay. All the time you wish you could have spent with your family, but instead was spent with papers and a red pen, grading, evaluating, and editing work? Apparently, you made the wrong decision. All of that work you’ve done and time you’ve spent making yourself a better, more professional, more effective teacher, all that time was sent down the drain because you may not be working here anymore and your efforts aren’t acknowledged. We don’t care about what you’ve done. It’s not important.

The Sins of the Fathers…
If you’re lucky, you’ll only receive a pink slip when your school district is so incompetent that it can’t keep accurate records and sends out pink slips to everyone in a panicked effort to buy itself some time to get things sorted out. East Side Union High School District is notoriously in debt, though by exactly how much remains the subject of some considerable dispute. The district office is also unable to determine which teachers have which credentials, despite the fact that every teacher working in the district has, at one time or another, sat inside the district office with an HR representative and handed over their credentials to be photocopied in a several-hour-long, seemingly-interminable paper trail process. Some teachers have even repeatedly sent their credentials down through the years as a result of additional coursework completed, degrees earned, or new credentials awarded. The sins of the fathers will be visited upon the sons, however. Because of the district’s mismanagement, mismanagement that happened while all of us teachers were busy working in the classrooms to teach our students, over 720 teachers in East Side will receive layoff notices.

Wait in Line for WHAT!?
Most of my friends and colleagues at SC have received the same notice that I will be standing in line at the post office to pick up tomorrow afternoon (that’s right, since it’s sent certified mail, I actually have to make a special trip to stand in line and pick up the notification that my services may no longer be required; talk about adding insult to injury). The fact that I am not singled out for such a notification is comforting. I am in some terrific company, with first-year and 30-year teachers in the mix. And emotional reactions aside, the district simply cannot operate with less than 50% of its current staff. I’m in good company and it’s not very likely the layoffs will occur in such large numbers.

The sane part of all of us will rest assured that we will have our jobs back next school year. In fact, with any luck, by the middle of April we will have our jobs back. However, that only slightly softens the sting of the quite real possibility of not teaching at SC next year or not even teaching at all. The immediate question is: do I want to work for a district office whose board memebers, with the backing of the current superintendent, are willing to perform such an act, either as a way to undermine the union or to cover their own financial short-comings? Perhaps ESUHSD is not all it’s cracked up to be; it’s the highest paying district in the immediate vacinity, but maybe the board is so corrupt that the higher pay is not worth it.

Trustees Who Can’t Be Trusted
Certainly, Craig Mann’s credit card charges are corrupt; maybe his soul is, too. He’s told the Mercury News that he is “prepared to file a lawsuit on behalf of the taxpayers to prevent the misappropriation of [land sale] funds” from the sale of the Quimby Road property (Fortt. “Teachers to get layoff warnings.” 12 March. 2005). The funds used to take his entire family on a vacation to Orlando, FL and his several political trips, paid for with the district credit card, must have been just fine for the taxpayers to foot, though (I wonder if he had to be prompted to reimburse the district credit card for that Florida trip or if he just did it of his own good will…). Considering his financial irresponsibility and the sad financial shape of this district, it’s amazing that he was voted back onto the board recently.

Of course, Mann isn’t the only board member with ill-thought spending habits. Patricia Martinez-Roach is guilty of misguided spending, too. Her name is in many of the same articles as Mann’s, with her expenses every bit as egregious.

I point all this out to say that two of the very people who helped move ESUHSD into such a state of financial ruin are still on the board and are two of the people who decided to send out around 720 pink slips. Let the record show that, at a cost of $5 per letter, that’s $3500 spend on mailing those slips home. What good could $3500 do for the education of our students? I can think of many ways that money could be better spent. But then again, it’s increasingly clear that spending money wisely is not an ability with which the current board is gifted. How ironic that they are the Board of Trustees. I wouldn’t trust those people with much of anything.

How Far Down Does the Rabbit Hole Go?
And, of course, this is only one small piece of the puzzle. Other folks suggest a much more detailed look at this issue, but even that doesn’t go as far back as one should to really understand why we’re here today.

Do You Have to Let It Linger?
The lingering question in my mind, that speaks of my more troubling notion of not teaching at all in the future, is one that gets at an even larger issue than hinted at above: do I want to work for a system that is broken, a system that allows for such a state of affairs? The troubles ESUHSD are having are troubles experienced everywhere in education, at least in public education. If I get a job at another school or another district, these issues will crop up there, too. Or, if I’m fortunate, not the same issues, but ones we at East Side have already conquered that other districts have yet to take on. So I trade in budget concerns for a weak union that’s unable to hold class sizes. Great.

Maybe it’s time for that system to be torn down and built completely anew. Maybe it’s just time that I don’t help a broken system anymore. Maybe that is my way of helping that system. Maybe I should try to pull as many of my colleagues out with me as I can. Maybe that’s the best message we can send to our kids.

With my pink slip in hand, and with the San Jose Mercury News and local news stations constantly telling me that my union is being uncooperative, that I shouldn’t worry about getting a layoff notice, that my health benefits are luxurious, that I shouldn’t complain, I will boldly go where many people have never gone and wouldn’t ever dream of stepping foot; I’ll go into my classroom and do my best to not let any of this affect the quality of instruction this year’s students will receive. My reward? To most likely be told that the STAR scores are not high enough and that I should do a better job teaching to the test instead of expecting to have my students tested on what I taught. It’s the system, stupid.

6 comments on “It’s The System, Stupid”

  1. Matt Hall Says:

    Hey buddy,

    I’m with you, obviously. This sort of discussion is taking place everyday at school, one-on-one and in little huddled groups of teachers.

    My question is this: If you or I were on the board, or if you or I were superintendent, would we do any better or any differently?

    Does power corrupt that badly? I’d like to think I’d do differently, or better. I don’t know. Of course, I’m against what they have done, are doing, and will do in the future. Can they really be that stupid/arrogant/anti-teacher? wow…..

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Public education in the U.S. as we know it will be gone before you and I are dead. What will rise in its place? Hmmm…..Shinkou? =)

    Love you bro….

  2. Todd Says:

    My point here is that we’ve got some corrupt folk on the board that are making teachers pay for the mistakes they made. The public is not so aware of this and the media is making this appear to have been a deficit created out of thin air. That money was diverted somewhere; someone is responsible for the poor organization at the DO. Unfortunately, at least two of those people responsible are still on the board of trustees.

    Yes; power does corrupt that badly. Perhaps it corrupts even worse when one already has a tendency in that direction, though. I suspect that those we have representing us are such characters. The finances were not open and honest until recently. The deals made at local and district levels were occassionally bad and often egregious. Now that it’s time to fix those problems, teachers are paying the cost in a huge way. Instead of somehow holding Mann’s or Martinez-Roach’s feet to the flame and making them accountable (no pun intended) for this poor spending, instead of figuring out how it is that the finances came to be such a mess and uncovering that larger story, teachers are laid off, more money is needlessly spend, distractions take away from the already-quickly-fading school year. So, once again, educators don’t get the benefits, yet carry much of the blame.

    And Shinkou, yeah, that’s why “It’s The System, Stupid.” This is not something unique to our district. It’s something inherent in the system we have decided to work in, hence my lingering question.

  3. Rushton Hurley Says:

    I think it was Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind that said there is as much money to be made in the decline of a civilization as in its rise. ‘Decline’ differs from ‘disappear’, though, or his making money would be a waste of time and energy. Seeing cycles, some would say.

    I have similar questions about whether the system is -simply- in need of a totally new hull, or if the boat is going to sink regardless of our efforts. The volatility, though, surely maximizes the interest people have in exploring alternatives, which, it seems to me, is a good thing. While Rhett would make money, we might end up with ideas that create hope for hundreds or thousands of kiddos in our community. A little volatility can go a long way for those ready to ride the rough wave.

    These thoughts probably do not lend comfort to the hurt and insulted. I would contend, though, that our society does us a terrible disservice by addicting us to comfort. What matters, at a spiritual level, is whether and how we devote our time and energy to what we understand needs to be done. I have no criticism for those who feel that the proper path is to stay within the system. For those who suspect that something far better might be possible, though, it may be a karmic requirement to explore the options.

  4. Jeremy White Says:

    I totally agree with you, although I don’t think that pulling out of the system is the best way to solve the problem. This would not give a good message to the students. It would show them that when you job gets a little unfair, you should just quit. Although, I am an alumni of Santa Teresa High School in ESUHSD, and so I am just as furiated as you about seeing most of the best teachers in the school receiving pink slips for no good reason.

  5. Todd Says:

    A little unfair? I’d say this is more than a little. This is most egregious. I see what you’re saying, but I think the message is more like teachers will not be taken advantage of. The message I want students to get is that you need to stand up for yourself. There does come a point when it’s OK to “quit” or leave. When the situation is bad and you’ve done all that you can to fix things, there’s nothing to do but walk away. That is a cold, hard fact.

    And, ultimately, for me it’s not about the message to the students. It’s about me taking care of myself. If I’m trying to send a message to anyone, it’s to my fellow teachers and any “higher ups” that catch wind of it. The message is that the system is broken. The only way to fix it is to build a better one. Until I can join in that building with some people, I have to question my participation in that system.

    I’m not helping to fix anything by acquiescing. And I’m certainly not doing good by the students to show that tolerance is acceptable. Fight. And if you’ve fought a hard fight but still haven’t won, you simply cannot go on. It’s time to change things.

    But I really do love what I do (he wrote, while staring at a stack of 100 essays and 2 weeks worth of tests) and hope to be here next year. However, the insult is sickening and I wonder about a system that allows such a practice as ESUHSD (the board and superintendent, specifically) has displayed.

  6. Retired Educator Says:

    Greetings! Todd. I enjoyed your well written article. I hope you are well and you are enjoying your summer. I would like to seek your permission to post a link to your article or repost it in its entirity (“It’s The System, Stupid”). Send me an e-mail and I will give you information how to contact me by phone.

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