Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Our stories-- What made you an educator?

When you're a teacher, people almost always make assumptions: you like the summers off, you didn't do so well in school, you're planning on marrying someone rich, you're a dreamy eyed liberal. Well, when I was a teacher, I always introduced myself at Meet the Teacher Night the same way. I'd put on my biggest smile and say, "In my family, you're either a teacher or a preacher, and if you can't tell already... I'm not really cut out for the ministry." Growing up in my family, I never thought of it any other way.

My parents, born 1941 and 1943, were teachers in NC public schools. My father's father, John S. Oehler, Sr. born 1911, was the principal of an elementary school in Kannapolis, NC. My father's mother, born 1907, was a teacher in a NC public school. My mother's father, Ira C. Sassaman, born 1910, was an English and Math teacher as well as a School Board Member of his town. My mother's mother, born 1904, was a teacher at age 15 in her central PA town of Belleville. My older sister and I both went into teaching. I suppose, one day, one of my two children will be teachers.

Yet, when I think back about what really led me into teaching, it wasn't what my parent's or grandparents did, but how they acted and how they treated others. I always think of going to the Kannapolis K&W with my Grandmother, Lucile Oehler. I must have been about six, and oh boy did I love the cafeteria. Even today, the thought of going down that line and looking at all those types of desserts makes my mouth water; but going with my Grandmother was about something other than food.

As soon as we walked in the door one person after another walked up and politely thanked her for having been their teacher. It is as if the cafeteria line were pointing in her direction. They would boast that they were now fine citizens with good jobs just as if she was waiting there ready to reward them, gradebook in hand. These grown men and women gazed into my Grandmother's denture less wrinkled face the same way they had done so many years before when they first walked into her classroom. They knew that Ms. Oehler would not treat them like lint heads, the poor children of mill workers. They knew from the moment they walked into my Grandmother's classroom that they were going to be respected. My grandmother didn't shy away from providing tough love (she was after all a good Lutheran and the mother of three boys), but she believed in providing her students with the tools and skills that would enable them to reach their dreams. This interaction mesmerized me, even then, as I watched my toothless grandmother eat her jello and butter beans so long removed from the classroom.

Monday, May 10, 2010

A sample letter as to what your letter to the County Commissioners might look like.

A neighbor copied me on her letter to the County Commissioners. I thought I'd pass it on.

County Commissioners :

I am writing to ask that you help take care of our Durham County schools. With the recent budget crisis, I know you have many hard decisions to make. As a property owner, I am willing to pay more in taxes to support the schools. The children of Durham are our future. We need to make this very important investment in them and their education.

Please do whatever you need to do to help support the Durham County schools.

Gratefully yours,

My call to action--

Here's a letter I've sent to any and everyone I can think of... If you want to send it out at your schools, be my guest:

Friends and Neighbors,

Many of you know how much our family has loved our experience with EK Powe and the Durham Public Schools this year. Our son Lars has grown so much; he is reading and doing math, but our biggest pleasure has been our unexpected discovery of the greater DPS community. What a treasure we have with our Bull City Schools!

Unfortunately, due to economic circumstances out of the control of Durham's elected officials, (hello Recession?), the DPS budget is facing draconian cutbacks not only THIS year, potentially laying off over 237 teachers and increasing class size by over three students, but due to the end of Federal Stimulus dollars, the 2011-2012 budget looks even worse-- no local dollars for increasing much needed after school or preschool programs; no local dollars for staff development to implement new programs to increase reading proficiency-- no local dollars for providing new supplies to teachers to implement cutting edge teaching practices-- no local dollars for much needed improvements to school buildings and school grounds. Only the Federal Stimulus dollars kept DPS afloat this year, and the year after next they will be running out. (NC already ranks 11th out of 12 southeastern states in per pupil spending.)

Fortunately, there is a solution to the problem. Last week, the School Board courageously passed a budget that cuts 60 central office staff, athletic supplements, reducing grounds keeping services, and many other services, but attempts to maintain 237 classroom teachers. Our elected officials even REDUCED their own very limited stipend by $300 dollars. Everyone in DPS understands the need to make sacrifices and change the way they do business. This is where we need, you, Durham's voters, to take action: If this $16 million dollars was raised without cutting other county programs but solely through a tax increase, it would mean approximately a .05 cent tax increase for schools to County property owners. This would mean an extra $100 a year on a $200,000 house. $100 dollars a year or the cost of two sausage biscuits a week from Bojangles...mmmm... seems a very small price to pay for continuing the investment we have in our children.

I'm asking all of you to write, call, email and talk to your County Commissioners and let them know that you want them to do WHATEVER IT TAKES to maintain our schools. Durham has a rich tradition of supporting our schools. Now, we are heading in new directions in Durham, let you Commissioners know that they need to keep us headed in the right direction.

Thanks for your support,

Michael Oehler, 1300 Alabama Ave

County Commissioners:
Michael Page, chair,
Brenda Howerton,
Becky Heron,
Joe Bowser,
Ellen Reckhow, vice chair,

My message to the school board last Thursday night.

People have asked me what my message was to the School Board last Thursday. Well here it is...

My name is Michael Oehler, and I have a son in Kindergarten at EK Powe, and a daughter who will be at Powe next year. I was a teacher for 8 years, hold a MT degree, and for the past 6 years have been the primary caregiver of my two children. I have a blog: that I started to gain support around the idea of a tax increase to support our schools.

First, I'd like to thank you all, the school board, for the time you devote to Durham's children. My grandfather Sassaman was a School Board member in Hummelstown PA, and I'll never forget the stories he told me of parents showing up at all hours of the night demanding a teacher be fired for some reason or another. I never really imagined myself as one of those parents, but stranger things have happened. Anyway, I know he never looked back on his time on the SB negativiley, but he focused on the positive. Thanks again.

I don't have any magic potion that will generate $20million, but I do have a few ideas:

It seems as though a perception exists that DPS is a top heavy organization. Although 60 positions have already been eliminated from Central Office , when I examined the budget, I wanted to find a way to increase the HOPE of the community and create a feeling a shared sacrifice as well as address this perception of DPS as a "top heavy" organization.

My idea first idea is to relocate all offices in the Fuller building to empty classrooms in school buildings across the district. Imagine Human Resources or Elementary Curriculum and Instruction sharing the basement of EK Powe, right next to the backpack food program storage closet. How would anyone have the gall to talk about those administrators at Central Office not understanding what it is like in the trenches when they, too, had to fight for parking spots, smell the cafeteria food cooking, or have their meetings interrupted with fire drills or water leaking down the walls when it rains. Imagine the synergy created between HR and Maintenance when Dr. Becoats was coming for a meeting and the floor was wet because a toilet leaked?

Next, I'd also like to see a line by line itemization of the cost of ALL of our testing programs. From benchmark's to EOG's. While I support testing and accountability, we need to spend money on programs that have a greater return than an assessment. It is NOT the TEST that teaches, but the teacher, and when facing such a severe fiscal crisis, I believe that knowing the true cost of the tests is crucial-- I can't imagine that my Kindergarten son needs to be given a standardized test every four weeks--although apparently Judge Manning does.

Finally, I believe that enough dollars could be shifted from the TEST heavy focus of our schools to spending money on programs that have proven returns like successful magnet programs like the one at RN Harris, AVID, Saturday Academy, and teacher mentoring. These are proven small programs with big

As someone who has always believed in the power of public education in America, I can see the pressure the schools are under all across the nation. However, I know that you all will not take the easy way out, but make a courageous choice to fully fund our schools.

Thank you.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Budget Cuts at my son's school

At EK Powe's sitebased meeting tonight, we learned that if the proposed budget cuts go through, the student to teacher ratio at EK Powe will increase from 17 to 1 to 20 to 1. This translates to a loss of 3 teachers. Our wonderful principal put a bright face on it. She said that this was the "worst case scenario". She was unsure of her Title 1 funding, and she casually mentioned some programs she was concerned about losing such as supplemental reading programs, ESL teachers, and reading curriculum specialists. She/we couldn't make much of things right now, because she really didn't seem to know herself how things were going to change. She said she wouldn't know the actual cuts until the summer when both the state and local budgets are adopted. Our last sitebased meeting is May 10th.

Why do I get the feeling that the County Commissioners and State Legislators like things this way? The summer budgetary time frame suits them just fine. They can wait for all of the parents and teachers to go on summer vacation while until the schools are officially gutted.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Real data on teacher salaries

People have been talking to me a great deal about school funding. Go figure. The other morning a very progressive liberal neighbor and I were shouting at each other back and forth across the street.

She said I was asking for too much money. She said it wasn't clear whether I was asking for a 33% or a $.33 on $100. I explained to her that I was limited to 250 words for the N & O article. She said I was going about it all wrong. She wants data. Well, here's some data from everyones favorite anti-tax group, The John Locke Foundation.

This paper ranks states by teacher salary when those salaries are adjusted for factors such as pension contribution, length of service, and cost of living.

Seems like a good idea, because we all know it doesn't cost nearly as much to live in Durham as it does in South Orange, New Jersey or Marin County, CA.

When teacher salaries are examined in this light, NC ranks 14. Not bad. But wait a minute. Take a look at the top five on this list: GA, IL, KY, AL, AK.

WOW! Those are five states that definitely take education seriously. Look at that list again. Yikes! Are these the states we want to be comparing ourselves to?

In case you're interested, here's the link to the actual report.


Wow. I made the bigtime! (sarcasm) Check out the article in the News and Observer here:

I also thought I'd repost my initial commentary on the school tax idea. Here it is:

After last night's meeting with the County Commissioners and the School Board, it is clear to me and others that the only solution to our system's budget crisis is a tax increase. For too long, we have underfunded Durham's schools. Now, we are at a tipping point. The passion and hope on display at last night's meeting was inspiring. Now, we must focus this energy into pressure on our elected officials. I propose we ask for the creation of a special Durham School District Tax of .33 on $100 of assessed property value. This rate increase would happen over the course of 10 years with a 6% increase the first year followed by 3% increases the next 9 years. While it wouldn't immediately alleviate our current budget mess, it would show a real commitment to our children's future.

Some particulars: A .33 cent increase per $100 would mean roughly and extra $660 on a $200,000 house by the end of the tenth year. This would increase our per pupil spending in Durham County from $2,845 to $5,684 and far outpace the current state high spender, Chapel Hill-Carrboro. Who would not like that? Well...

Many will claim that if we raise taxes that much in Durham that people on fixed incomes like the elderly, unemployed, or poor, would be forced out of their homes. While this is a very real concern, I believe we cannot let our future suffer for the wrong policy decisions of the past. Provide limited tax increments for those who are on fixed incomes or in poverty which is not MOST of Durham's property tax base.

People will claim that housing prices will rise so much that only the affluent will be able to afford the taxes and only the affluent will enjoy the good schools. Do we have a problem with affordable housing in Durham County? Yes, but that is not because of our tax rate. It is a problem caused by developers not wanting to build affordable houses. It is the problem of a city and county officials giving sweetheart deals to big developers. Why do developers and Realtors fight so hard against ordinances that attempt to require certain percentages of affordable housing? It isn't because of the tax rate?

Would a higher tax rate drive the poor out of Durham and make their lives worse as Mike Ruffin suggested at last night's meeting? This logic seems so circuitous it makes my head hurt. Certainly, as schools improved, all home values in Durham County would increase. However, to make the argument that we should keep our schools underfunded and suffering so that poor people can still live in Durham and attend these suffering schools is the definition of insanity.

People will say that there are approximately 35,000 students in Durham County schools and there are 260,000 residents in the county. They will say that school children make up 13.5% of the population, yet DPS alone makes up roughly 30% of the county budget. They will point out that DPS funds no portion of their tax burden. (Like our children should be out selling chocolate bars so that they can keep teachers in their classrooms?) They will claim that we already have more than a "reasonable" amount of our tax dollars going to support our children-- more tax dollars than go to any other one agency in the County. We will be told that the county tax rate is 70.81 cents and the city tax rate is 54 cents, so Durham city residents (which is the vast majority all Durham County residents)pay a total of $1.2481 dollars per hundred valuation. Are we supposed to forget that pretty much one of the only reasons that local governments exist anymore is to educate (schools), protect (police and fire), and assist (social services)? What do these people want? A police and fire department as big as the school system? Well, that is what would happen, and is happening, if we continue to cut education.

Finally, we'll be told that Durham County schools are not underfunded at the local level, at least not in comparison to other systems in the state. We'll be told they are in the top 5 in local funding since forever. Hundreds of dollars more per pupil than surrounding counties and comparable counties, except for Orange County. We'll be shown this list from the 2009-10 Per pupil funding from the NCACC Budget and Tax Survey.
Alamance - $1,466
Buncombe - $1,758
Chatham - $2,727
Cumberland - $1,388
Durham - $2,854
Forsyth - $2,079
Guilford - $2,405
Johnston - $1,735
Mecklenburg - $2,267
New Hanover - $2,520
Orange - $3,073
Wake - $2,112

We'll be told to believe that this means we're succeeding. Yet, aren't all those other school systems suffering too? Aren't they facing the same if not greater problems? When we were getting the most money, weren't these same leaders pointing to DPS scores and asking us what good the money did? Durham has one of the highest concentrations of poverty in the state. Wasn't that one of the reasons for not raising taxes? But then, isn't it also a reason our schools need more money?

We are not fools. It is time for us to get together and demand proper funding for Durham's schools. Please, I'm not a policy wonk. I've started this blog in an attempt to reach out. We can make a difference. Think about what each of you can do.