Commentary | Budget realities mean PUSD must do things differently going forward

Board of Education President Veronica Anderson Thigpen read the following statement on behalf of all of the trustees at the Feb. 14 public hearing.

Over the past several days, the Board and Dr. Hawn have received hundreds of emails from teachers, students, families and members of the community. These emails are about the proposed reductions that are on the agenda for tonight’s discussion. Each one of these emails takes issue with one or more of the proposed items. We recognize
that for many these proposed cuts feel deeply personal. We, too, feel these personally. We are invested members of this community and parents to past or current PUSD students.

These are some of the things families, teachers and students are saying to us:

“Don’t cut this program.”
“Please save these teaching positions.”
“We are distressed about the impact these cuts will have on students.”
“I feel immense concern.”
“I am upset and confused and heartbroken.”

Sampling of emails from families, teachers, and students

We read your emails. We are responding to them directly and indirectly. And most importantly: We. Hear. You. And we feel the pain, too.

Now we ask that you hear us. Each member of this school board is an individual, a member of the Piedmont community, and a parent to children who attend or graduated from Piedmont schools. Yet as school board members, we are a collective. In order to work on behalf of everyone in the community, we must operate as a cohesive and coherent body. That does not mean we all agree on everything. We each bring our own opinions, beliefs, and lived experiences to this work. However it does mean that we must work together, especially in tough times, to find common ground and pursue solutions that serve all members of our school community. We must assume good intent from one another.

So now here we are now at a crossroads. Our teachers want a raise and the Board, the superintendent, and most everyone else in our community, want to make that happen. A three-year offer is on the table and to ensure the district can pay for it, we are considering $2.3 million in proposed reductions. We are also trying to increase
revenues through strategies that are within the district’s control (increasing resident enrollment; creating a new independent study program).

We would like to acknowledge the painstaking work that Superintendent Dr. Hawn and CBO Ruth Alahydoian have done combing through the budget in search of creative solutions that will allow the district to reach our financial goals and clear a path for teacher raises through 2026. In the past three years, teachers have received raises of 6
percent, 2.5 percent, and most recently 7.5 percent. With the current three year offer of 2-4-3 percent, teachers would get a 25 percent raise over six years.

As Board Member Cory Smegal pointed out at a recent meeting, teachers and administrators in our district have historically worked together, and that has been especially true when times were tough. When people work well together, it’s usually an indication that there are high levels of trust. Also true is the consistency of fundraising
support provided by Piedmont families. We are fresh off the Giving Campaign which raised a record-breaking $3.5 million for next year’s budget, and for our elementary schools, spring fundraising events are on the horizon. Parents’ financial support for our schools is a major source of relational trust.

Yet this foundation of trust is taking a beating this year. Our new leadership team has faced negotiation roadblocks from the start. Now that we are in mediation, the district is at the table, ready to meet. Budget Advisory Council meetings and two special board meetings in January provided opportunities for everyone in our community to learn more and weigh in about possible budget adjustments. Dr. Hawn regularly communicates budget updates in clear and transparent language.

Still, misinformation is seemingly rampant, as many of the recent spate of emails and current discussion threads on social media attest.

One email rife with misinformation landed in our inboxes yesterday decrying a proposed reduction in high school art. So we’d like to unpack this one a bit more. PHS has multiple advanced art courses that have attracted very low levels of student interest. Even when combined, these classes enroll far less than the optimal 21 students needed to be cost effective. One combined advanced art course this year only has 7 students. When you do the math, the community is paying upwards of $3,700 per student to staff this class. Compare that to a high school course with a more optimal level of enrollment, say 28 students, and that costs just over $900 per student to staff.

Going back to the emails, there is also a matter of tone. Many of the communications we have received have been constructive, thoughtful, impassioned, and respectful. However, we have also been called “stupid” and accused of not caring about students or teachers, which couldn’t be further from the truth. If we are to believe all the emails
we read, this board does not care about diversity, art, technology, counseling, special education, or physical education. Frankly, the fact that every group of people has told us we don’t care about their topic means that these cuts have touched each and every part of our programming at PUSD. While we understand that people are upset, hurt, and concerned, slinging accusations at the School Board, Dr. Hawn or other administrators does not move this conversation forward. Doing so is insulting and counterproductive.

We are your neighbors, friends, and colleagues. We are real people at the other end of an email address. Treat us with the same seriousness and respect that we show you. So again, here we are at this crucial juncture. And the board has a question for all of our community members: What are we willing to give up individually in service of where we are looking to go collectively?

When each of us looks at our current context, the programs and services that our own children participate in and benefit from, the under-enrolled courses and declining school enrollment in the schools where we work, what is it that we can let go of in service of our community-wide goal to raise teacher and staff compensation? In order to achieve this shared goal, we will have to make dramatic changes. And as always, change is really hard.

Right now in Piedmont, we have an opportunity to show care for each other. We have an opportunity to ask questions and to collaborate and to assume positive intent. We have an opportunity to operate from a foundation of trust and to understand that budget realities mean doing things differently. Difficult times often force innovation.

Let’s do what this community does best and come together to reimagine what is possible. Approaching this from a deficit mindset is counter-productive. This is an opportunity for change.

In closing, there is a poem by the legendary boxer Muhammed Ali that seems most fitting for where we are now. It’s said to be the world’s shortest poem. He came up with it on the fly in a talk he gave at Harvard in 1975. Here’s the poem:


Muhammed Ali, 1975

4 thoughts on “Commentary | Budget realities mean PUSD must do things differently going forward

  1. Thank you for this well-written and thoughtful letter, Veronica. I’m sorry that the Board has had to deal with disrespectful or insulting commentary and ask that the community think twice before sending off a hot-headed email.
    Thank you for your hard work PUSD board members. Bon courage!

  2. I hope everyone in Piedmont gets the chance to read this. It’s extremely well said and important for everyone in our community to hear this. Well done Veronica Thigpen!

  3. Incredible thank you to the school board, teachers and administrators for all of the hard work you do. These are complicated issues and finding compromise is hard but I trust you are seeking that with all good intentions to support the community.

  4. I am an Art teacher at PHS. I want to address what seems like a misunderstanding. I spoke to this at the 2/14 Board Meeting, but feel that it is important for people who may be reading this statement to also be aware of it.
    There are NO Art class periods with only 7 students. My smallest class period is a COMBINED Art 3/AP 2D Design/AP Drawing class period that has 15 students. My largest classes have 33 & 32 students in them. The current 2.0 FTE Art serves almost 32% of the PHS population this year.

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