With the Jerk of a Knee

Shirley Hills School
Shirley Hills School in Mound, Minnesota, was brand new when I attended as a second through fourth grader in the 1950s.

Whenever a school funding proposal appears on the ballot, many voters react in knee-jerk fashion. I’m among them. Some of the knee-jerkers would never consider voting for any tax, schools or not. They look for reasons to oppose. Others, including me, can’t imagine NOT voting to fund schools.

It’s all about gratitude. For thirteen significant years of my life, people who for the most part didn’t know me paid taxes so I could get an education. I’m grateful. Throughout those thirteen years a cadre of public school teachers devoted themselves to my growth and betterment. I didn’t always appreciate their efforts at the time, but I’m indebted to them now: from the aptly named Miss Gardner, the kindergarten teacher who introduced me to the enchantment of learning, to Mr. Thornburg, the twelfth grade yearbook advisor who sparked the possibility in my mind that I could be a writer. I can still see the smile on his face when, years later, I ran into him in a restaurant and told him I was an Associated Press editor.

I’m grateful that all my teachers provided a legacy that today’s teachers can build upon. Teaching today is certainly more stressful. Sadly, educators must work much harder to gain community and parental support.

Five school districts in Okanogan County, where I live, are placing funding issues before voters Feb. 13. Washington state has been wrangling for years over how to fund education. Now the state has a new formula, which means operating levies in some districts may be reduced. Less means more, thanks to state matching funds. My district—Omak—stands to lose $7 million from the state if the levy fails.

Omak is also asking voters to approve bonds to build a new middle school. The school will be vitally needed by the time our burgeoning enrollment of kindergarten through second-graders reaches that level.

I was in the vanguard of the baby boomer generation. Lucky for me, voters in the 1950s recognized the need for more schools. Instead of being squeezed into antiquated buildings, I attended mostly new schools from second grade on. Even then, I recognized the difference it made.

Last week I went to an informational meeting about our proposed middle school. I didn’t need to be convinced. I showed up to support the volunteers and school leaders who’ve worked for years to develop a practical plan for addressing future needs. I was heartened when a gentleman spoke eloquently about his gratitude to Omak schools for giving him skills that, he said,  “I use every day.” I was disheartened when the same gentleman voiced skepticism over the likelihood of this bond issue passing.

I agree with him that our method for funding schools is inadequate and sometimes unfair. But those kindergarten through second graders, who are being crowded into so-called portable classrooms even now, didn’t invent this system. Maybe, if we give them a good enough education, they could eventually find a way to fix it. I hope we don’t wait that long.

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