Alabama Must Meet Educational Challenges in Wake of Tornadoes, Funding Shortfalls

COMMENTARY | Tallassee, a small town in central Alabama where I live, proudly boasts a lake; a dam; a river with rapids; two state of the art plants, GKN and Neptune Technologies; an excellent work force; and our own school system with three schools: Tallassee Elementary, for grades K-4; Southside Middle School, for grades 5-8; and Tallassee High School, for grades 9-12. Our teachers are respected (although with budget cuts and dealing with parents, including me, from time to time, they may not always feel that way) and hold a special place in our community.

Unfortunately, Teacher Appreciation Week, a week set aside from May 2-6 for all of us to provide some extra TLC to teachers, has been lost in the furor after last week’s tornadoes. As a parent of a 3rd grader in our local city schools, I thought this would be a good week to examine three of the main challenges facing our teachers and the schools.

Dr. Jeffers, the superintendent of the Tallassee City School system, believes that the biggest challenge facing teachers today is the sheer breadth of the duties the teachers have to assume, according to an interview Jeffers I conducted Tuesday. In addition to simply teaching, teachers have been forced to undertake more of a caretaker/parenting role for some of their students than they did formerly. These caretaker duties task both the time and energy of the teacher, as well as the school system’s funds. I have heard stories from my daughter of some of the things her teacher helps the other students deal with and have wondered how her teacher is able to handle it and still teach.

Funding is another major issue. In Alabama, a large portion of school funding comes through the state. Our constitution forbids the state to run a deficit. When the state’s revenues are less than projected, the state implements an across the board cut on all ongoing expenditures. This is called “proration.” This year, an “additional” across the board 3 percent cut was declared — and that was before the tornadoes April 27 (The Wetumpka Herald). Proration, as you can imagine, creates chaos in the local school systems, just as you would be thrown into financial disarray if your employer suddenly announced that you would not be receiving your next two paychecks.

Another fiscal challenge our local schools face is what Dr. Jeffers explained as the “equity” issue. By law, counties are required to impose at least a $10 million property tax in order to pay their portion of school expenses. Each of the two counties in which the Tallassee City Schools lie impose the property tax, and the city imposes an additional $3 million tax for the local schools. Other school systems with more affluent tax bases have additional revenues available to them, creating a huge disparity between the funds available for schools in particular areas.

A final issue unique to Alabama stems from the tornadoes. Last week’s tornadoes damaged over 18 schools in our state, and at least five of those (two in Hackleburg and three in Tuscaloosa) were completely destroyed (The Montgomery Advertiser). While I am sure everyone in Alabama will do everything they can to help those schools rebuild (even our small elementary school is collecting donated school supplies for the students and teachers in the damaged schools), with money already in short supply, those communities face immense challenges.

This week, take a minute to reflect on the teachers in your community and the challenges they face. Then do something that lets them know you really do appreciate everything they do.