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Cry Me a River

Nationally, until just the past couple years, nominal per pupil spending increased every year for three generations. Now, for the first time in memory, public educational leaders are being asked to do what their counterparts in any number of public, non-profit, and for-profit organizations do routinely--cut back and make do with less. A few K-12 leaders seem to accept that public schools, which have added staff at twice the rate they've added students in the past decade, need to shoulder their share of the burden as states confront budget shortfalls. A few even see a bracing opportunity to deliver stern medicine or trim programs that should've been cut loose years ago.

But, in a depressing depiction of the fecklessness that too often passes for educational leadership, two University of Kansas faculty shed some light into how most edu-leaders are coping with the burdens of actually be asked to, you know, lead.

The two professors, KU dean Rick Ginsberg and professor Karen Multon, start with a troublingly saccharine note, writing, "What often gets lost as the news about budget woes mounts is that people just like you and me, often our neighbors, are responsible for identifying and implementing the specific cuts. It isn't easy for leaders, even when they are distant from those being affected."

Ginsberg and Multon surveyed "93 principals from one large upper-Midwest metropolitan area and 100 superintendents from four states across the country" to see how they're holding up. The results are telling. They report that, "More than 50% of both [superintendents and principals] indicated that their health had gotten worse due to budget cuts, and on another health-related question, both groups indicated that they worry about their health."

Ginsberg and Multon explain, "Principals and superintendents have serious concerns about their personal time (for leisure, relaxation, and personal life), their physical health has been negatively impacted, they worry about their health, and cuts have created significant challenges in areas like making innovative reforms, services offered, and overall faculty and staff morale."

They report that principals say that "anyone who thinks that all cuts, no matter where they're focused, don't affect classrooms doesn't really understand the culture of schools. Students and teachers are affected by all cuts leveled at schools. Note this explanation one principal provided: 'It is impossible to make cuts in a district and not have it impact teachers and students. We cut a secretary and many tasks are now falling to teachers. This takes up their precious time to prepare for students...We cut a mail delivery person, and now secretaries and paras are having to do curbside pickup and drop-off of mail so the mail can travel on buses. It has further added to our already reduced office staff.'"

One especially distressing passage reported that "most [principals] were very concerned about the negativity the cuts had generated. It was taking a toll on the principals. For example, one commented, 'I felt attacked by teachers who believed I played a role in decisions.' Another lamented the 'reduced levels of trust with employees.' One principal summed it up this way: 'I was and continue to be surprised at how some people react. I had typically reasonable people telling me that they weren't going to do their job. ... I feel we have taken a huge step backwards in our communication, trust, and cooperation.'"

School and district leaders are free to do as they will. For what it's worth, though, I'm not sure that bellyaching or insisting that every cut is devastating is going to win a lot of sympathy among parents and taxpayers who have lost jobs, taken pay cuts, and been asked to tighten up their own household and work budgets.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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