An Eye on Education

An Eye on Education

Every time it looks like public education has reached a new nadir, another jackalope comes leaping out of the kelp forest. Back in August, when Governor Gavin Newsom announced that schools in California would get an additional $5.3 billion in funding due to the pandemic, I thought that a top-of-the-line voice activated Swingline stapler and a Craftsman three-hole paper punch were just around the corner.

After all, could California really burn through $5.3 billion on hand sanitizer and face masks? Given that students are not in class or on campus, expenditures for paper copies and paper products in general have fallen to 1850s levels. The weekly cost of graffiti removal has hit single digits.

Couple Newsom’s profligate deficit spending with the district grazing on fresh Measure A clover — as passed in March 2020 — one would expect teachers to have a budget for supplies. I envisioned two industrial-strength staplers on every desktop. But as my Aunt Nelly liked to warn us prior to birthdays and Christmas, “Expectation is the first step on the highway to disappointment.”

As the AP Statistics teacher at Encinal High School (EHS), I like to ensure all of my students are out-fitted with a TI-83 graphing calculator; it is essential equipment to the serious student. I keep a cache of them in my rusted-out file cabinet just in case. This year, due to what I am proud to say is an enrollment record, my inventory slumped to the point that my remaining two calculators function intermittently; I am loathe to issue them to students for fear of adding to my mystique.

In non-pandemic years EHS teachers are given an annual supply budget of $500. As a historical note: one year the district actually clawed back all teacher supply money that hadn’t been spent by March: use it or lose it was the lesson embossed in our minds.

The IRS anticipates that underfunded; public-school teachers will augment what parsimonious school districts fail to cover: that teachers will purchase classroom necessities with their own money. I am confident the same is true for district employees at AUSD headquarters.

To quote the IRS code: “If you’re an eligible educator, you can deduct up to $250 of unreimbursed trade or business expenses. Qualified expenses are amounts you paid or incurred for participation in professional development courses: books, supplies, computer equipment (including related software and services), other equipment, and supplementary materials that you use in the classroom. This year, fatuously trusting the fiscal integrity of the district, I dutifully filled out a purchase order request for five spanking new TI-83 graphing calculators.

One of the bottom rungs of the funding ladder provided the following exegesis to the overlords: “Mr. Smith is one of our teachers. He is asking for these supplies (i.e. the calculators) to help his students while distance-learning. Is there a budget for this at district that can help pay for his wish list?”

The response was resounding: “There is not.” I felt like Oliver Twist asking for seconds of gruel. AEF, bless their hearts, is a charity organization; AEF relies on contributions, charity, hand-outs; much like athletic boosters, PTSA, music boosters, Donors Choose, etc.

One might wonder if the six-figure salary battalion over at AUSD HQ is facing the same austerities as the people in the trenches. If an upper-crust edu-crat, with exacting sartorial standards, to request an electric pencil sharpener, would he or she be redirected to AEF?

What if a conference room on Challenger Drive needed an upgrade on its Keurig espresso machine, would they have to fall back on public hand-outs like an ordinary teacher?

Every time the city proposes a parcel tax measure to support education, it is pitched as if: this will close the gaps.

On the flip side it implicitly warns, “If you want your kid to be handed a Band-Aid by a school nurse, or if you want your student to know what the inside of a school library looks like then you better approve a tax increase.”

The City of Alameda has democratically demonstrated its generosity by passing Measure A, but now the district is directing teachers to get out there and exploit community benevolence by pan-handling the public via non-profits. The muckety-mucks of public education always find a way to intercept tax money before it gets to the teachers; this year they have done their best job ever: a zero-supply budget.

Jeffrey R Smith teaches mathematics at Encinal High School.