Keep school budget talk out of the classroom

First published in Newsday.

Recently, I was driving my seventh-grader to one of her many events, when she began explaining LIFO to me. She told me that the youngest teachers were usually the ones to lose their jobs when there are budget cuts: "last in, first out."

I don't consider this information a seventh-grader should be thinking about - except perhaps when learning labor history in the classroom. She said that her teachers, and others, have been talking about the politics of school budgets.

It may seem a little soon, given that budgets won't be up for a public vote until May. But people are thinking ahead since this time around will be different. New York schools will be budgeting to stay under the 2 percent property tax cap passed earlier this year.

This week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo negotiated a deal to restructure state income tax rates so that New York will be able to afford a promised 4 percent increase in state aid to schools next year. I hope that deal takes some of the tension out of the classroom, because I don't think school budget cuts are a proper topic for students.

I first heard such concerns from my daughter when she was in fourth grade and came home to report that her teacher might lose her job if the school budget didn't pass. The message to parents was that we should get out and vote "yes." It was the emotional equivalent of dangling a baby over a banister.

I sent an email to another teacher, who was the supervisor of my daughter's program, and said I didn't think they should be talking in class about teacher layoffs. First, it's scary for kids to think that the teacher could suddenly be gone. There's an emotional attachment between student and teacher.

It's also frightening for kids to contemplate how their teacher might be harmed by job loss. Last, it's unfair to imply that Mommy and Daddy hold the only key - the ballot box - to saving Teacher's job.

Could it be that if the school board had negotiated a more modest teachers contract that it could afford to pay more teachers year after year? Of course. Could it be that if administrators found savings - like condsolidating their ranks or settling for less luxurious compensation packages - that the system could afford to lay off fewer teachers? Right again.

But I didn't say that when I emailed my daughter's school. I simply said that I felt the financial conversation was best kept among adults, and that students might be frightened by layoff talk.

When teachers raise district budget issues in class, it feels like divorcing parents who are pointing blaming fingers at each other. It's divisive, angry and unhealthy. I feel the same way about teachers refusing to stay for after-school help or wearing black to school to protest that they're working without a contract. These "conversations" should occur among adults. Kids should be able to focus on adaptive immunity and rational integers and the branches of government without being distracted by budget politics.

Teachers surely want to be treated like professionals - and I've met far, far more good teachers than the occasional inconsiderate one. But a few loose comments - such as how my daughter learned about LIFO - can poison the atmosphere.

With the tax cap in effect, the conversation about how to pay for public education is going to become tenser in coming years. We can figure it out, but let's do it in a room where only the grown-ups are allowed.