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Ashland teachers call for support

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Some 40 sign-waving Ashland teachers took to the downtown Plaza Friday, imploring the Legislature to rethink proposed budget cuts that would cost the district $2 million and lead to increased class sizes.

Demonstration leader Kate Kennedy, an Ashland High science teacher, said they hope to persuade members of the budget-writing Ways & Means Committee, who have much number-crunching ahead of them in the next three months, that “with this economic upswing, they should not be cutting school money. We’ve been underfunded for 30 freakin’ years,” since passage of Measure 5, which capped property taxes and led school funding to move from the local level to the state.

Amid much horn-honking from passing drivers, Christie Boyd, an Ashland Middle School art teacher, said the cut would take 7 percent out of the local budget. “It feels pretty personal to me, because art teachers are always the first to go.”

Matt Damon, a library-media teacher at Ashland Middle School for 20 years, said state mandates create more responsibilities for educators, but they are given fewer resources to carry them out. This leads to bigger classes and, “believe me, a teacher with 30 students instead of 24 is a whole different ballgame. You just cannot offer the same quality.”

Teacher Becky DeSalvo said Ashland has a “quality education model” and “an incredibly supportive community,” including the Ashland Schools Foundation, but “when I started here 19 years ago, my biggest class was 24, and now my smallest class is 24. The state needs to replicate the support Ashland is providing.”

McKael Kenfield, a 14-year science teacher at Ashland High School, bemoaned “continuous budget cuts,” noting she’s off to buy $40 worth of plywood and leather, out of her own pocket, for a word laser lab she’s been planning. She adds, “We’re running out of money. We go through so many consumables. We live in fear of more budget cuts and less hands-on quality teaching.”

Ashland Middle School media arts teacher John Stroud said, “We need to be moving forward, not backward. We have such large class sizes. Why are we talking budget cuts? The governor talks about more money for education, but this feels a little bit like betrayal. Every year, I see my kids at that point of being more dynamic, worldly and engaging, and they deserve more time from us.”

Several teachers pointed to the need for more funding, time and one-on-one support staff to engage increasing mental health and behavioral issues among students.

“More students have more anxiety issues, mental health needs,” said Kennedy, a teacher here for 29 years. “We have more disruptive kids who won’t allow others to learn. As a nation, we’re experiencing greater malaise. Social media increase distractions and stress of teens. They lack outdoor education and art and music.”

Damon calls it a “mental health crisis and a big reason for the anxiety and depression is many families have not recovered (from the 2008 crash) and live in real stress about their economic situation, and that trickles down to the stress of children.”

ACEs — a scale of Adverse Childhood Experiences monitored by the Centers for Disease Control — are going up in the last decade, and “kids with multiple ACEs have a harder time learning,” said DeSalvo. These ACEs, which can last a lifetime, include physical-sexual-emotional abuse and neglect, domestic violence, household substance abuse, divorce, household mental illness and incarceration of a household member.

Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, in an interview, said proposed budgets are tight but are just at the draft stage and final amounts will depend on freeing up money from the general fund by finding other sources for health care or passing a proposed cigarette tax, which could net $359 million.

Marsh said the Joint Legislative Committee on Student Success is beginning study of a supplemental school package that puts $1 billion into schools, with specific programming, including early childhood education, new statewide investments in classrooms, school improvement (including mental health), as well as a jump in per-pupil spending.

About the rise in mental health-behavioral issues, Marsh said, “something significant has happened in the last five to 10 years, and it’s happening across the state in every classroom, K through 12.”

Causes can be traced, she added, to intergenerational patterns of people raised in dysfunctional families who are now raising their own families without support or knowledge. It can also be blamed on digital devices, which are comforting to children, tending to take over some roles of parents, who are working hard and not always available to the kids.

A statewide teacher walkout is being organized for May 8 — and, says Kennedy, Ashland teachers are debating whether to join it.

“We have an ongoing levy in Ashland and passed school bond measures by 70 percent. Ashland educators greatly appreciate it, but we want to show this is just about the state funding issue.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Teachers rally Friday in Ashland as the Legislature ponders education funding for the coming biennium.
Teachers rally Friday in Ashland as the Legislature ponders education funding for the coming biennium. Jamie Lusch / Ashland Tidings