The Principal walked around the back of the circulation desk and stood underneath one of the new flat screens that had been installed recently during the school's renovations. The $17 million project had secured the decades-old school new lighting, new HVAC, a new kitchen and tray return, new computers, and new HD televisions in every renovated classroom. Not that it did any good anyway, considering the school didn't have cable service and none of the DVD players available had HD upconvert capabilities. Based on what the Principal had to tell the faculty, it didn't look like they'd be getting any of that in the near or distant future.
Ethan sat in front of one of the new computers by the circulation desk for this faculty meeting, off to himself, as he had known that a collection of teachers in a meeting were worse than any group of 12 year olds you could imagine, constantly talking and passing notes and giggling throughout. He wore an ill-fitting powder blue shirt that hadn't been ironed since its purchase, only to be air pressed with the stretch-waist dress pants by the dryer at home in the morning before he had to quickly eat, shower, and walk the dogs before leaving for school. He had some idea what this meeting would be about and suspected there'd be much talking among his colleagues during the meeting, so he prepared his patience for distractions and disharmony by loosening his oxford tie and unbuttoning the top of his shirt. He was uncomfortable as it was, the thickness of his thighs stretching his pants and boxers and his paunch pouting over the reversible belt that was not matching his shoes which didn't have a matching belt in the first place.
A projection screen and projector were set up with detachable speakers to either side of a laptop, and the meeting began by watching a PowerPoint of the upcoming financial woes of the school district for the current fiscal year and predictions for the following two. Property tax collection had been dipping in the previous two years and were getting worse for a district whose monies were dependent upon the housing boom of the 90s and the early part of the 2000s. As the housing market went bust and foreclosures increased and as new communities sat uninhabited, banks folded and people went broke and the county couldn't afford to pay its teachers any more.
At the conclusion of the presentation the Principal turned to the faculty and addressed portions of the figures and what it meant to the staff and spoke with a stern and steady voice with a look of consternation and annoyance on her face.
"We had a Principal's meetin yesterday and it wasnt fun. Believe me when I tell you that durin an after the meetin there were many of us who were losin our voices and most of had done lost it by the end. There wasnt a thing that was said that any of us liked to have heard and we spent most of our voices on tryin to make sure everyone had a job by the end of it but things are bad and gonna get worse so we're gonna have to make some changes and some people are gonna have to move into different positions, but I'm happy to say that it looks like noones gonna have to lose their job altogether".
To this, the staff applauded. Ethan noticed during the duration of the presentation and during the Principal's opening statements that noone in the room had been engaging in their usual snickering or note passing or anything to that nature. He should've known anyway. Ethan had surprised himself by not having a little more foresight in understanding that moods had grown so bad that the staff barely greeted each other in the mornings anymore. People had started leaving earlier and coming in later. Papers weren't being grade. Administrative requests were delayed in their fulfillment or wholly ignored. Some were still trying their best. Some were fading away. Some had altogether given up.
The spring before the faculty had been surprised by new contracts and the requirement to sign a canary addendum to their contract that essentially signified that we knew that contracts and pay may change midstream given the economic hardship of the county at the time. The furloughs came in the fall of 2009 in the form of three 5% pay cuts that were distributed in the September, October, and November checks. For single teachers it hurt a bit, for teachers who were married to a breadwinner it hurt pride more than anything else, and for teachers married to other teachers, it hurt the financially and emotionally at the same time.
When the furloughs were handed out they were told that more might be coming. Then might turned into probably, then probably into definitely, then definitely turned into what the Principal had to say next.
"We're gonna have to realize that the days of business as usual are gone, an they probably aint comin back in my time to be honest".
Ethan glanced around the room to absorb the atmosphere and to gauge the faculty's reaction. Eyes were either directly on the principal, on the floor, or at each other. Round with worry. Desperation. Silence.
"The ITS position has been cut to five people who will serve clusters of eight schools, so Dr. Fall's position here at the school is gone. The In-House position will no longer be filled by a certified teacher. Now its gonna be a parapro and that means we're gonna have to do what we can to keep them kids out of there as much as we can. Class sizes have been increased from a maximum of 32 to a maximum of 35. Library parapros are now going to be shared. There will no longer be two media specialists at any one school. Our dollars-per-pupil amount for supplise is being reduced from $65 a kid to $55 a kid. Middle school athletics are also on the table to be cut and so are graduation coaches".
Being a science teacher, Ethan's position was fairly safe. The Principals had insured the staff since the beginning of the budget crisis that people who had direct contact with students on a daily basis would be safe from any position cuts. No schools or classrooms would be cut or shut down, but some folks who were in the building this year would be gone the next. Attrition was what the county office was banking on now, hoping that enough people would retire, leave the county, or choose another career so people in non-teaching positions could be put in classrooms to dave their jobs.
The part about athletics was disconcerting, though. Ethan and his wife, Ashleigh, both worked at the school and both coached athletics. With the furloughs, they stood to lose $500 a month. If they took away their stipends, they'd lose another $500 a month. if the county had their way, they both stood to lose 20% of their pay each month and things were tight as is. They, like most people in their early 30's, were stuck with a mortgage and bills and heaping amounts of debt, to boot. They had followed the standard set in 90s of living beyond their means that continued even after September 11th and persisted without knowing of the woes to come.
The only person to speak during the presentation was the school's athletic director.
"Now that's just bullshit. Middle school athletics pays for themself we dont need no new equipment and we take in enough from the gate to pay for our supplies an stipends so that crap would only save the county a few thousand a year. There ain't no point to hurtin good people and the kids like that".
"Now Coach I know that an you know that but this county folks we're talkin about and all they know is numbers. And thats all theyre carin about right now too. Ive done said my peace with them and theyve done heard my peace and it seems like we got a problem with understandin one another. The bottom line is that if it can be cut and it can save money and it dont directly effect whether or not these kids learn their four Rs, then its fair game for goin the way of the dinosaur".
For what it was worth, their Principal really did care about them but could do precious little to turn back the tide of waning tax receipts and how much money the county could take. Hell, even the county office couldn't do anything about it. The crosshairs for blame were laid squarely and deservedly on the state Governor and his office for the gross mismanagement of tax dollars during his two terms and he was happily ending his term in this, the worst financial year the state had seen since 1970s and he didn't want to have a damned thing to do with any of it anymore.
The governor's legacy had been balancing a budget and pulling the state our of the red, something he did on the backs of the state's employees, the largest group of which were teachers. Beginning in 2002 he started making "austerity cuts" in education funding in an effort to generate the savings to pay off the state's debt. After two years, he'd accomplished his goals. In his third year, he continued the austerity cuts and began channelling the savings into pet projects of his own choosing rather than saving the money for a rainy day. Now, as 2010 was getting to a start, it was raining and raining hard.
As the Principal opened the meeting to questions Ethan held the mouse from the computer and slowly moved it in circles as his anxieties began to build. He picked it up slightly, eyed the laser light pouring out from it and gently set it back down. He glanced over his shoulder at his wife, who was sitting at a table with her team of teachers. She was leaning over the table on her elbows with both her hands on a green marker that she twirled in her fingers. Her eyes were directed at the pen but he could see she was looking through it, past it, like she was looking at something somewhere on the floor under the table. He could tell she was thinking about things, worrying, something she didn't do as often as he did. She sensed his glance and turned her eyes up and looked at him without moving her head. Her eyelids narrowed and she gave a have smile, but he could sense her worry.
Please, God, don't take her spirit away. She's the only one of us with any optimism and I can't take it if she becomes as cynical as me. Christ, that'd be ugly.
He gave a slight smile back and looked behind her towards the library's floor-to-ceiling windows. It was late in the afternoon and overcast and cold as hell outside.
And it was raining.