Education spending proposal leaves out important items

Published 4:53 pm Wednesday, January 12, 2022

A few days ago, the Mississippi Association of Educators issued a statement regarding the state Department of Education’s plan to spend $1.6 billion in ESSER monies. We questioned their decision. We noted the loss of classroom teachers here due primarily to the embarrassingly low salaries provided to these professionals. Even the Governor’s Task Force on Education advised an increase in salaries in their August 2021 report.

While the MDE primarily chose to focus their spending on internet products, we say funds are also needed for items that directly improve the learning experiences of our students. This does include paying teachers and staff well so that they don’t have to work extra jobs to make ends meet.

I am writing now to expand on our concerns and the need for targeted spending in other vital areas of public school K-12 education.

Vital areas include providing school physical infrastructure that is safe and healthy, supportive learning environments, reliable transportation and schools positioned to become centers of community life.

A most obvious item deserving attention is the need for every school building to conform to ADA standards. While we recognize that many school districts have made necessary improvements in this area, there are others that have not. We recommend that funds be targeted to help achieve this decades-long goal.

We recognize the real need to provide secure learning spaces. We believe monies would be well spent to make sure entryways and exits are secured from invasion and schools have attack-proof “safe areas” in case the unthinkable happens.

Further, as someone who has travelled Mississippi visiting schools, I can definitively say that many of our school buildings are operating in dangerous, unacceptable conditions. As I write this, a notice has gone out that a high school has had to close because the heat is out there. Other schools have mold, mildew and water leaks. Speaking of water, does anyone have an accurate assessment of how many schools have lead pipes that need replacing? It’s doubtful. Certainly, funds should be allocated to alleviate these dangers in our schools.

We are pleased to see that the MDE placed emphasis on mental health of students. We believe staff and professional educators should have access to these services as well. With threats and stresses of pandemic illness, school invasions, food shortages, transportation issues and other dangers, we think professional mental health counseling is a worthy investment that should be a permanent part of each school’s staffing.

We’ve already noted the shortage of teachers due to low salaries. Did you know that there is a shortage of bus drivers as well? Principals and teachers are having to fill in as bus drivers in some districts because their drivers have left for higher paying truck driving jobs. We should pay our bus drivers as though they are hauling the most precious cargo in existence, our children. Further, we should make sure buses are safe, clean and in excellent condition. It costs money to do this.

You may have heard of the “community schools” idea that seems to be blossoming all over the country right now. Areas that decide to implement this idea have recognized school buildings, often situated in the “middle” of town and comprising the largest indoor area available to citizens, are sitting unused for large portions of the day and year.

“Community schools” make use of this space by opening their doors to clubs, meetings, social events, adult learning classes, exercise classes, independent team sports and other activities that bring community members together. They provide spaces for dental services, doctor services, physical therapy and other health services (like Covid testing and vaccinations) that community members don’t have close by. Community schools invite the participation of local residents in an atmosphere that respects and appreciates them. Schools welcome local volunteers to teach specialties such as art, dance and music. Or, they provide studio space for these artisans to set up paid classes. We think these ideas are worth funding.

So, yes. As professional educators and education staffers, we are interested in more than personnel salaries. We are interested in funding safe, wholesome, strong learning environments for our students in places that welcome and strengthen their local communities.

Erica Jones is president of the Mississippi Association of Educators.