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Mary Sheehy Moe: Budget cuts turn teaching into crowd control, strip away innovation

Mary Sheehy Moe

In 2008, facing a national recession and the city’s entanglement with Electric City Power, Great Falls voters rejected the school district’s mill levy request. School trustees had no choice but to cut $2.65 million from the general fund budget. In 2009, they cut another $614,894 and pulled $1.5 million from reserves. In 2010, a small levy passed, but trustees still had to cut $311,000 from the general fund and pull $937,000 from reserves.

That pattern has continued to the present. Only one levy has passed since 2011 and even then, trustees cut more teachers, reduced more services, and used $600,000 more from reserves. How do you do this year after year? You make hard choices. You rob Peter to pay Paul and then rob Mary to pay both and then go back to Peter again and Paul again and Mary again. Over time, a whole lot of good teachers and good teaching go blowin’ in the wind.

When you cut nearly 12 percent of your teaching staff over 11 years, unless enrollments drop at the same rate, the remaining teachers shoulder the workload. Enrollments in Great Falls dropped less than 3 percent during that stretch, so class sizes have increased at every level. 

More efficient, you think? Think again. If you expect teachers truly to teach, to reach every student in their classroom and to move them forward, you must take class size, the subject being taught, and the depth and breadth of student needs into account. 

When you add just 4 students to an English teacher’s class of 20, for instance, that’s one more hour she must add to the 5 hours it already takes to respond to a writing assignment. If she teaches the typical 5 classes a day, each with a similar increase in class size … well, do the math. The only workable solutions are not assigning writing very often or not responding to it meaningfully. Or both.

At the elementary level, really being a presence in a student’s life, not just academically but in every way, becomes less do-able in direct proportion to the number of students you work with and the challenges those students face.

“I work in a high-poverty school where kids have so many needs my first order of business is to get them ready to learn,” a fourth-grade teacher told me last year. “With 26 or 27 students in a class, I’m pedaling as fast as I can to teach them, but it’s incredibly difficult. Now I have 32 students. It’s not teaching when you have that many. It’s crowd control.”

From 2013-2018, an average of 68 elementary classrooms in Great Falls were in overload – i.e., “crowd control” – status. 

Larger class size isn’t the only change that makes teaching harder. When you cut the staff members who support students needing one-on-one time, you deprive not just those students, but the rest of the class who cannot get the instruction that they, too, deserve. The unassisted classroom teacher not only has more work to do, but less help doing it. And even less time.

When you cut budgets for equipment, supplies, professional development, libraries, textbooks and field trips, you hurt the quality of instruction. No teacher can teach as effectively with outdated materials. All teachers like to keep up with cutting-edge methods and pedagogy.  How do we know? Because teachers in Great Falls and throughout the nation are paying for these things themselves rather than deprive their students.

Teachers especially like to innovate. They love to design experiences that give kids some fragment of the excitement they have for their subjects. Several years ago, Great Falls teachers and administrators collaborated to create the STEAM Expo, an opportunity for students district-wide to conduct an inquiry related to science, technology, engineering, arts or math. The resulting project presentations brought hundreds of students and thousands of community members together for a day to watch students shine.

It was a labor of love for the students and for teachers and administrators who pulled the event together. “It’s a great time,” one teacher yelled above the din to a reporter in 2015. “We’re very lucky to have a community that supports us this way.”

The STEAM Expo was part of the $1, 565,363 cut last year after another levy request failed.  

I could write entire columns quoting teachers on the importance of class size, support staff, materials and the autonomy to innovate. Someday maybe I will. But the remarkable thing is how consistently their statements are not complaints about their jobs, but expressions of concern for their students. “It’s not about me,” one teacher could have said for all of them. “It’s my students who suffer.”

Teachers. You gotta love ‘em.

Over the course of the summer, I’ll be writing in this space about the reasons we’re losing teachers in Great Falls and elsewhere. If you have a story on that subject you’d like to share with me, please contact me by email at mary.sheehy.moe@gmail.com. 

Mary Sheehy Moe: Underfunded schools are losing teachers at alarming pace