Last Wednesday, at 10:30 a.m., a group of about 70 students at Rhinelander High School walked out of class and out the front door of the school. They were protesting the fact that the district had recently sent lay-off notices to four teachers, Blaine Obey, Angela Schaffer, Michael Velis and Kim DeBuhr. The protest certainly created a stir, and drew some media coverage, but did it accomplish what the students really wanted?
Facing a budget tightened by $2 million dollars, the district informed the four teachers, and several others at other schools in the district, that they would be laid off at the end of the year. This procedure is nothing new. Up to two dozen teachers receive lay-off notices, better known in the district as “pink slips”, in the School District of Rhinelander every year. Many of those teachers are eventually offered positions in the district later on in summer, when the district has a firmer grasp of its budget and enrollment numbers. Still, many are not, and they are forced to seek employment in a neighboring district, move away from the area, or make an even bigger sacrifice…to leave their chosen profession; a profession and skill set that they spent at least four years in college honing.
The truth is, there is very little job security for teachers, especially those that are in their first five years in a district. And at a starting average wage of under $26,000 annually, teaching isn’t exactly the lucrative employment avenue that some seem to think it is. And if you choose to teach a subject that is not part of the “core curriculum”, such as art, music or physical education, there is even less security, as those subjects are often considered the “low hanging fruit” ripe to be plucked to get a district within budget. The School District of Rhinelander has certainly done its share of plucking from those areas, as many art, music and phy-ed instructors have cycled through the district in recent years. Some have stayed on in half-time (or less) positions, and others have left the district entirely. Basically, four teachers at RHS receiving lay-off notices is not a surprise. It’s the way this district, and most every school district in Wisconsin, has operated for years.
Which brings us back to the protest. I received word from a source on Tuesday evening last week that students were planning to walk out. I debated the merits of covering the protest, before ultimately deciding that it would not be in the paper’s best interest. I’m certainly an advocate for free speech, but I’m an advocate for education as well. But education should be treated as a privilege, not a right. These students may have had good intentions, but the end result left school administrators scrambling, many students with truancy fines and a day of education disrupted. And for what…a 30 second clip on a local TV station? Additional disciplinary actions the district intends to take include a few hours of detention after school this week for each student.
While many in the area have been critical of the district, saying they overreacted to what was a peaceful protest, I certainly understand the district’s side. They are charged with (and receive a lot of tax money for) providing a safe and effective learning environment. The district’s job is to provide the best education possible to each student, while figuring out a way to do that effectively within budget limitations. In the end, these students were effectively insulting a district that was simply doing what the taxpayers of the Northwoods demand–live within its means.
There are so many ways these students could have effectively gotten their point across without disrupting a day of education: become educated on the district’s financial situation, write letters to the editor, show up and voice support for teachers at School Board meetings (often the only people in the audience at these meetings, where important budget decisions are made, are us media lackeys, but at least they’d get the coverage they want), call or write their state senators and representatives, flood the governor’s office with pleas to open up the education checkbook…heck, open a dialogue on Facebook. Walking out of school during the day may have been flashy, but the negatives outweigh the positives.
All I know is that if my son were one of the students who walked out of class without permission to protest, I’d have marched him into the principal’s office and made him apologize for the disruption he caused. Again, education is a privilege, not a right. These days, when school districts are asked to operate like a business, tough choices are inevitable.
I certainly applaud the idea behind the student protest, and understand the students’ frustration. But next time, don’t disrupt the education that is happening through those school doors. Keeping that going effectively is hard enough as it is.