(Ed. Note: This is the first of another three letters Mercer Island Patch received over the weekend. We'll publish the next letter from Claus Jensen at 4 p.m. and a third letter from Cindi Pacecca, a first-grade teacher at Lakeridge Elementary School, at 6 p.m.)
As our community learns about and discusses the upcoming school bond, one question keeps coming up: If we’re going to raise additional money for our schools, why can’t we spend it on teachers?
I whole-heartedly agree that teachers are critically important. However, school funding is very restrictive. Capital Bonds, like the $196M we will vote on in April, can only be used for long-life capital projects like buildings. We can only pay for teachers through our Operating Fund which is a function of per pupil funding we receive from the state and local taxes, which are capped. We legally can't raise more money through local taxes for the operating fund.
That's why, as state funding has declined, our community has stepped up through the Mercer Island School Foundation and PTA's Bridge the Gap campaign to raise money to keep teachers. Last year, Bridge the Gap raised $1.2M and funded 20 teachers. Without this support, the District would have had to lay off 20 teachers for the current school year. This is in addition to the MI School Foundation's Fall Phone-a-Thon which raises over $400,000 and pays for curriculum, staff training, school improvement plans and funds teacher grants.
There are some in our community that wish the Bond included a fourth elementary school. Unfortunately, the annual operating cost of $450,000 to run a fourth school or a single new school would be in addition to the current amounts raised by the Fall Phone-a-Thon and Bridge the Gap, bringing the total needed in community donations to over $2M each year. As a District, we rely now on 2,300 generous families who are sustaining the quality of our schools at the level our entire community has grown to expect. Asking them to donate more for a fourth school seems both unfair and unsustainable.*
If we did not raise the additional annual $450,000 in operating cost through donations, we would need to lay off six teachers, which would raise class sizes across the District, and doesn’t exactly support teachers. From my vantage point, it appears that most of the vocal proponents of a fourth elementary school or a single school solution do not understand the current realities of school funding.
Some also protest that facilities don’t equal good education. Tell that to our teachers and staff who are constrained by our overcrowded and aging facilities.
They are frustrated with hallways that serve as multi-purpose rooms, a shortage of sinks to implement hands-on science and art lessons, doubled-up PE classes of over 50 kids, scheduling constraints that limit their ability to address student needs and being isolated from their colleagues and the school community because they are teaching in portables. (If you want to hear this directly from an educator, go to http://mischoolsyes.org/mellish/)
Many have expressed to me that passing dozens of Vote NO signs while on their way to their school each day is making them question how committed our community really is to great education, especially when they see surrounding communities (where 74% of our staff live) investing in new schools.
Supporting teachers comes in many different forms. Providing our staff with the facilities they both need and deserve will send a powerful message that our community values our talented educational professionals and wants them to have adequate space and the physical tools to do their best work.
* In addition, in order to add a fourth elementary school, our current Bond would have been sized at $218M, which would only increase the tax burden for all.