Illustration: Eric Hanson
As a teacher in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) for the past 16 years, I have grown used to dismal budget cut news arriving each February. Although cuts are always frustrating and their results burdensome, our school has been able to “hang on” reasonably well. This year, however, the budget cuts were extreme.
Our school’s budget was down more than $150,000 and we were also slated to lose SAGE funding (class size reduction funding for grades K5-3). Besides markedly increased class sizes in the coming school year, we would be losing our art teacher, library media specialist, math teacher leader, six classroom teachers, and an educational assistant.
I took a deep breath and readied myself to share the bad news with my 3rd-grade students. It is never easy to have this kind of conversation, and this year’s budget discussion, I knew, would be especially difficult. I began by briefly explaining how a districtwide budget works. I likened it to the budget a family might have, comparing each person in the family’s needs to each MPS school and its needs. I emphasized that sometimes there is not enough money to take care of every need that deserves to be taken care of. Many students shared something about their own family and the need for money:
I used to take ballet lessons, and I know I still deserve to have ballet lessons. But my family doesn’t have enough money now, so I can’t have my ballet lessons.
Sometimes I get my clothes at Goodwill because my mom says they are cheaper since the clothes aren’t new.
We don’t have a car, but my dad says if he can work more hours at his job, maybe we could have enough money for a car.
One way our school would be different next year, I explained, is that we would have more students in each classroom.
But how will we learn if there are so many students in our classes? How will our teachers be able to help us?
If I raise my hand, I hope the teacher will see it because it sounds like there will be a lot more hands in my class next year.
I also told the students that because of the cuts, next year our school would not have a librarian.
What! How are we going to check out books?