Deborah Westmoreland is, as of last Wednesday, the former media specialist at Moore Square Magnet Middle School in Raleigh. A couple of weeks ago, she asked me if I knew that the Wake County school board voted to eliminate her job and 40 others like it as a cost-saving measure for 2010–11.
No, I was embarrassed to say. I did not know.
The truth is, the school board hasn't spent much time on its budget, fixated as it's been on scrubbing diversity from the school assignment policies. It seems, in fact, that the new board majority—the Republican Five—would rather not know what its various moves will cost. They don't ask for any staff analysis, anyway—or not since the staff hung a $15 million price tag on their vote to abandon the planned Forest Ridge High School site in Wake Forest. (Intent on furthering sprawl, the Five are looking instead for land in Rolesville.)
It should tell you how little importance the Five attach to the budget that, though one of them chairs every other major board committee, they handed the finance committee chairmanship to Keith Sutton, one of the four members who is not a Republican.
The Republican Five don't ask, and consequently the public can't readily tell, what it will cost, for example, to give every student a choice between a calendar-year school in the neighborhood and a year-round school in or near the neighborhood.
As the nonpartisan Wake Education Partnership said dryly in a newsletter: "The current school board is trying to offer families more school choices, craft a new student assignment plan and possibly increase magnet school seats [by making some magnet schools year-round]. No details have been offered about the possible costs of the changes."
To which I would add: The Five, especially John Tedesco, talk a good game about raising student achievement and lifting the kids from low-income families. But they're not lifting a finger—or a dollar—to do it. And the programs they're cutting belie their words.
Here are some basic facts. The school board asked the county for $313.5 million next year—the amount it received this year—even though four new schools are opening, and attendance is projected to grow by 3,800 to a total of almost 144,000 students.
And in a rare, not to say unique, show of bipartisanship, our oft-squabbling county commissioners intend to approve the budget unanimously, exactly as submitted. Reason: The three Republican commissioners know it was a low-ball budget sent over by their Republican friends; the four Democratic commissioners don't dare increase it because it's an election year; plus they're loath to bail out the Five.
Another fact: State aid, which constitutes the bulk of Wake's $1.2 billion operating budget for 2010–11, is in free fall thanks to the recession. State aid accounted for nearly two-thirds of Wake's budget last year. Next year, according to Wake budget chief David Neter, it will be 56 percent or less.
You can get lost in the numbers, but here are a couple that stood out to me:
Wake County spent $8,282 per pupil in the 2008–09 school year, the latest for which statewide data is available, which put it 91st of the state's 115 public school districts. The average district spent $8,663, or nearly $400 more per student than Wake.
This school year, Wake's per-student spending fell by $37, Neter says, and it will decrease another $63 next year—at least.
"We are pitiful in funding education," Lois Nixon told the commissioners Monday, "and yet our expectations are very high." Nixon added, "The reason for the lack of student achievement, I believe, is a lack of funding."
Nixon was the politically unaffiliated candidate for school board last year in District 9 (Western Wake), but she lost to Debra Goldman, one of the Five. Goldman, like Tedesco, made a big point in her campaign about how diversity didn't close the achievement gap for low-income kids.
But their solution, if it can be called one, is to create low-income neighborhood schools and "align" them with county social services and the nonprofit sector. Too bad they weren't at the budget hearing: They'd know that the very programs they're talking about, already chronically underfunded, are those taking the biggest budget cuts from the state and the county.
Federal stimulus funds are all that stand between the Wake schools and massive teacher layoffs. When the stimulus evaporates at the end of 2010–11, school leaders say, Wake could be headed for a $35 million a year "cliff."
In the meantime, though, the Republican Five are able to protect classroom teachers' jobs by whittling away the so-called non-certified staff whose work is directly or indirectly aimed at helping low-achieving kids.
Project Enlightenment, an innovative, award-winning program, helps prepare preschool kids with disabilities, or whose families are economically disadvantaged, to enter kindergarten. Usually that requires helping the parents be ready, too. But in April, the Republican Five lopped all nine parent-counseling positions from Project Enlightenment.
Meanwhile, they cut the number of media specialists in the system by about 40 (no one seems to know the exact number) by limiting all elementary and middle schools to one such person and all high schools to two. Those specialists, like Deborah Westmoreland, who had come to the schools via "lateral entry" from other professional positions and were completing the coursework to be certified in their jobs, were terminated. Others with certification will be shifted around.
I interviewed Westmoreland on her last day at Moore Square Middle School. On our Citizen blog, I go into some detail about who she is and what her job entailed. But the point isn't that one very talented person lost her job. It's that the board thinks that media specialists—you may remember them as librarians—are expendable. They're anything but.
The modern library is a multimedia center that, as Westmoreland said, remains a "safe haven" for kids who are struggling, especially with reading, while also being the hip place where kids can go to find a cool book, magazine or computer program—if, that is, a competent media specialist has managed to obtain them. Not to put too fine a point on it, a lot of teachers need some media help, too.
These library positions may be frills in a high-income school where kids bring their own technology, or the PTAs supply it. In a low-income school, they're a vital extra resource for the kids who need one—kids who, thus far, are the main thing the school board isn't accounting for.