What do we want?

Try to imagine the days when the first settlers worked to make a life in this valley. The burden of working the land, building shelter, tending livestock and raising children was likely overwhelming. Those early settlers worked hard to provide some education to their children so that their children’s lives might be a little easier.

For the sake of efficiency, neighbors pooled their schooling efforts — area kids would meet at one home for lessons — freeing up more adults for labor. As the valley population grew, neighbors together built small schoolhouses and pooled their money to pay a teacher. With more growth, one teacher became two; a one-room schoolhouse got an annex, and before long, the school needed a new building, a principal and management.

Thus, a school district is born.

The point of this abbreviated history is to recall that the school district is, well, us. It is not a faceless bureaucracy thrust upon us from Washington, D.C. It should reflect our will as a community.

On Tuesday, the District 51 Board of Education will decide whether to propose a mill levy increase to backfill the $28.6 million that has been cut from the budget in the last three years.  In addition, the increase will soften the blow of the additional $8 million the district thinks it will have to cut next year.

So, this is our community school. What do we really want?

First, some context: We know that the $28.6 million in cuts has hit bone. Our community schools are working with 20 percent less funding, but student population has decreased only one percent. Administration has been cut by 70 jobs. Teachers have been cut to the tune of 83 FTEs. Fourteen percent of all cost cutting has been on the backs of existing employees — teachers, janitors and administrators alike.

As our children enter their classrooms this week, they will find that with fewer teachers, class size has increased, resulting in less student-teacher contact, and likely, less learning.

On the other hand, there is the cost of restoring what has been cut. In a moment of harsh unemployment and many families facing foreclosure themselves, can we afford it?

To be sure, none of these diminutions in services is going to suddenly turn us into the Detroit school district. This community can survive without restoring school funding closer to its pre-recession levels.

But again, what do we really want?

The Daily Sentinel merely poses this question. We are not at this time coming out for or against a mill levy increase.

We do, however, have a bit of advice for the school board when it makes its decision on Tuesday: Offer us something better. Offer us not just backfill, but improvement — a new direction. A sounder future. Smarter, more industrious kids.

We’ve grown tired of hearing about the woes of the recession in all of their ugly manifestations. Give us something to cheer, support and feel positive about into the future. Voters will support positive change. They’re less likely to feel triumphant about “backfill.”


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