Public information, public benefit – but at what cost?

I’ve fielded a lot of angry emails this week about the Hopkins School budget cuts, and rightfully so; it’s ugly, uncomfortable business when people lose their jobs. Many of you felt that it was inappropriate and insensitive to print the names of staff whose contracts will be terminated. I feel there’s an explanation due.

This time of year is incredibly difficult for school staff — everyone who works at a school deals with a high-stress, high-pressure environment, working long hours and putting their heart and soul into the job. Add to that a lack of job security, and it’s clear that it takes a pretty incredible person to take on the job of teaching.

My mother works in education. I’ve seen firsthand the emotional roller coaster of waiting to see if contracts will be renewed, seeing whether a year’s worth of long hours and emotional labor will be rewarded with continued employment or a hunt for a new job.

For those outside of the education system, the processes of contracts, tenure and budgets are fairly obscure. Often, funding, and who keeps their job, comes down to brutal math and a legally prescribed process. The last-in, first-out rule of tenure means that those with less than three years on the job are the first to be cut when funding runs out, regardless of how dedicated, brilliant and effective they may be as educators.

Here’s the thing — while there is a jarring, emotional reaction to having a termination listed in the paper, there should not be a stigma. Contracts are terminated for a huge variety of reasons, a majority of which have nothing to do with the quality of the staff members in question. These are good people who are losing their jobs because of a bad situation, and there should be no shame in that.

Unfortunately, the article I wrote didn’t include this context. In a news article, I don’t have the ability to include some of the emotional nuances afforded in an editorial like this one. I wasn’t able to say, “I’m sorry that these good people, who deeply care about their work, are losing their jobs.” I couldn’t add, “It’s not their fault they’re being fired. I wish it wasn’t happening.”

I had to let the names, and the people behind them, speak for themselves.

It’s jarring and upsetting. It’s not fair to the people involved. But it’s also not fair that the district is losing good, valuable teachers, and the public has a right to know that.

Unfortunately, printing that in the paper hits far too close to home for the people involved, bringing an extremely personal issue into the public eye.

I can’t take back that emotional impact, and that I deeply regret. I can try to take on some of that burden of explaining the situation.

First, the paperwork: the list of temporary contracts, the first section of the original article, don’t represent terminations of full-time jobs. Temporary contracts include special assignments, extra jobs, or short-term covering of work above a full-time employee’s regular duties.

It doesn’t mean that your favorite teacher is being fired if they’re on that list. There’s a whole variety of reasons that temporary contracts may be adjusted or terminated, specific to each individual.

It’s also important to remember that it’s very possible that teachers will be rehired as the budget solidifies in coming months. That’s part of how the system works, and job security can feel like spinning a roulette wheel and waiting to see if your number is up.

Second, the list of names is part of a publicly available school board agenda, discussed at an open meeting.

The school board, however, certainly isn’t going to advertise staff cuts. Few people attend the board meetings, and fewer still read through the hundreds of pages of documentation for board resolutions. The Sun Sailor has covered the budget as it progresses, with little to no engagement from readers, until now.

But whether you read it in the paper now, or notice next year when your child’s favorite teacher no longer has a job, it’s not a secret.

Referring to staff cuts purely in terms of full-time employee (FTE) equivalents, however, does disguise the fact that these are real people, who are devoted to their work. Using numbers, not names, obscures the individual contributions of the people that have given their all to teaching the community’s children, for one, two, or three years, only to lose the job they love for lack of funding.

We could have withheld the names. We could have directed people to read the names for themselves under the Hopkins Schools website, the About section, under the School Board heading, filed under Agendas and Materials, April 18 Board meeting packet, New Business, Item C: staffing resolutions. Obfuscating the names, passing the buck to those willing to look up the details for themselves, felt like a disservice to readers.

Keeping the names out of the paper doesn’t keep people in their jobs. What it does is make more than $1 million in budget cuts, including many staff members, seem like business as usual.
This isn’t to throw the school board under the bus, however; they, too, are making the best of a bad situation. The current budget crunch facing schools statewide comes back to the state formula and from there to state and national politics.

The further up the chain it goes, the easier it is to think of people as numbers, “efficiencies” or FTEs to add and subtract in various political and financial equations.

Ultimately, it’s legislators who determine the final sums of how our tax dollars are allocated.
For most of us, school budget machinations are archaic and incomprehensible. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop them from having a direct impact on our classrooms.

By printing the names of teachers, I hoped to bring a real, human face to the impact of budgeting on the school district.

I don’t expect everyone to agree with me. It was a difficult decision, and I still have doubts about whether I did the right thing. As a journalist, it would be irresponsible of me NOT to have doubts about such a volatile and complicated topic, that has a widespread and personal impact on so many people.

I sincerely regret having forced uncomfortable conversations on those already in a tough situation. I apologize for the distress and the confusion the article may have caused.

These conversations have to happen. I don’t like having to write it. You don’t like having to read it. And of course the people involved, and their families and friends, don’t like seeing it in their local news.

People have said there was no purpose to including the names, that it contributed nothing to the article or to the conversation. The fact is that now people are paying attention, people who have a stake in the district and may now realize just how important it is to get involved.

As messy and ugly as it is, if a few people decide to engage more with their school board as a result, start advocating for education with local legislators, or even just paying more attention to local government, it will be a step in the right direction.

So go ahead and shoot the messenger (via email) and let’s keep having an important conversation. But don’t just do that. Talk to each other. Talk to the people in charge. Don’t let the initial discomfort or stigma of this conversation stop the push for transparency and accountability in our education system. And please, don’t forget to tell your teachers how much you appreciate them. Believe me, that’s something they all need to hear, always, but now more than ever.

Contact Gabby Landsverk at [email protected]