Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Local budgets bring "the stretchout" to classrooms

When the locations were South Carolina's textile mills, this strategy was called "the stretchout." After Congress enacted the first minimum wage law, mill owners cut their workforces, leaving fewer millhands to run more looms for longer hours. In the great 1995 documentary "The Uprising of '34," the sons of mill owners characterized it blithely as an "efficiency technique." But the millhands and their own children got the message: Keep workers hungry and they'll be grateful for their job, regardless of the conditions you dictate.

Mills aren't the only places where "the stretchout" has been applied in South Carolina; schools are another great place to see this fine "efficiency technique" in action. It is so common that it's axiomatic nowadays: When budgets get tight, lawmakers cut school funding, local districts cut worker rolls, and the remaining workers -- grateful to still have jobs -- take up the slack.

This week's newspapers have published such news but have done it with a rosy tint. The headline from Monday's Post & Courier in Charleston reads, "Charleston schools cut 70 jobs to help save money." Cutting jobs equals being helpful.

Writes Diette Courrégé in that edition,

Charleston County school leaders will lay off 70 people next school year to help balance their budget, and instructional coordinators and mechanics make up the majority of the jobs being eliminated.

The school district released the names of the positions that will be cut next year to save more than $2 million, and the biggest group of affected employees include 24 instructional coordinators who work as curriculum coaches for teachers and 19 mechanics, most of whom were dispatched to schools for maintenance work on an as-needed basis. A total of 22 types of positions were touched by the layoffs, and those included secretaries, technicians, an associate superintendent, and student support facilitators for career and technology education.

'Tis a strange beast, our state government: It demands certain kinds of paperwork, for instance, done traditionally by a school's secretarial staff members. When those staff members are cut, our state government does not reduce its demand for this paperwork, so the work must be accomplished by others who aren't secretarial staff members. That means the district's remaining teachers will do it -- perhaps in their spare time.

Likewise with other job titles being cut (or "reduced" or "eliminated by attrition," or "right-sized," or any of various other euphemisms that mean job cuts), the workload remains the same, but the number of people responsible for doing the work shrinks. Fewer people doing more work; that's the old "stretchout."

Gina Vasselli of the Sun-News in Myrtle Beach gave a similar report in her paper on the same day. The Horry County School Board gave its budget final reading on Monday evening, and Vasselli noted beforehand:

A budget that includes a net tax decrease for taxpayers is up for final reading at the Horry County School Board meeting tonight.
The $513 million budget is balanced and, in addition to the tax decrease, includes restoring a salary increase for qualified employees, no changes in the teacher-student ratio, and no layoffs or furloughs.

Some positions at the district have been cut, but are the result of a previous decision to fully enforce allocation formulas, which determine how many positions each school will have based on student population.

Translation: No layoffs or furloughs are included in the proposed budget for next year because positions were cut in this school year, but even those job cuts are good because they only "enforce allocation formulas." They sound completely painless. I wonder if those now-unemployed educators even had names?

The stretchout isn't just being implemented on the Grand Strand and in the Low Country. Check your own local school district budgets for the past two, three, five, seven years and you might find a good bit of stretching-out happening in your own backyard.

Yesterday, word came from the Spartanburg Herald-Journal that it's being applied in schools in the original mill country's old stomping grounds again. Spartanburg District 1 approved its budget on Monday, and it's a much healthier budget than last year's, assuming that the General Assembly passes hoped-for school funding. Reporter Lee Healy writes that it reflects work "to slowly rebuild what several years of recession budgeting has torn down."

Some savings come from cutting 25 full-time positions from the new budget, including 12 teachers. The staff reduction, achieved primarily through retirement and voluntary severances, will save the district about $721,000. [Superintendent Ron] Garner said the cuts will affect class size in some areas, bringing teacher-student ratios to do-able, but not ideal, levels.

“There's just no way to get around (increases in class size) when you cut that many positions,” Garner said. “We're still at a good level, but we do not want class size to get to a point that's unsustainable.”

See it: Cut worker rolls, maintain the demand for production, and leave the remaining workers -- grateful that they survived the cut this time -- to take up the slack.

Superintendent Garner said one thing that jumped out at me:

“I am encouraged that the base student cost is greater this year than it was last year, but I am prayerful that the base student cost will get above the mark that we were at in 2009-10, when we started this slide,” Garner said. “We're still way, way off the mark.”

For this superintendent -- and probably a great many others -- getting necessary results from lawmakers in Columbia is a matter for prayer.

It reminded me of the old Charlton Heston film, "The Ten Commandments," when Pharoah commanded Hebrew slaves to produce bricks without straw, partly as punishment and partly because old Pharoah didn't want to spend any more of the royal kitty on straw. The Hebrews turned to God for relief.

But Pharoah ran a dictatorship. South Carolina is, at least on paper, still a democracy in which citizens have the rights to choose their representatives, to speak out in protest when those representatives fail their constituents, and to petition government for redress of grievances. Isn't it? If so, perhaps we need to plan some public prayer vigils when we can have some good old-fashioned discussions about "the stretchout."

No comments:

Post a Comment