The Business of Education

Katherine Ren also contributed to the reporting of this story.

It’s everywhere you look.

It’s the teacher at the podium. It’s the databases that students log into daily. It’s that gym class that you got out of the way last summer so that you could take band. It’s the newly refurbished classrooms, the SmartBoards, the slick new laptops in the library.

Times are tightening ever so slightly—even for the high-flying School District of Clayton. It’s the budget, but it’s not just money talk and number crunching.

It’s the price of an education—yours, to be exact, if you’re a student.

Before you begin appending dollar signs to anything and everything school-related, take a step back. The Clayton experience is, by popular consensus, a synthesis of the people, the tools, and that intangible spark that some call “atmosphere,” while others chalk it up to “attitude” or “relationships”. Either way, we’re not so sure the latter category is something that can be so easily bought.

But for the rest, there’s the District budget. And the purse-strings are finally beginning to tighten.

THE BASICS

The weak economy is in no way surprising news—it’s literally been the news for years. But in Clayton, that same tumultuous economy is just beginning to take effect now. Strictly speaking, compared to other districts, Clayton has been relatively fortunate, weathering the economic storm with minimal impact.
“We’ve known that we’ve been inching towards this for a while,” Chief Communications Officer Chris Tennill said. “It’s just now time to start that conversation and figure out, ‘So what do we have to do? What kind of decisions do we have to make? What combination of different things do we have to use to solve the problem?’”
What problems, exactly? The District has entered another year of deficit spending, plainly, but the issue is not so much an immediate crisis as a potential long-term question for most District employees, administrators and teachers alike. In the midst of the considerable layoffs that other school districts, including Ladue, are facing, Clayton is at a stage where it is trying to figure out exactly what it values—and in a timely manner.
“One of the advantages we have over all these other districts that have some financial hardship right now is that we’re just now really having to seriously sit down and plan for it,” Chief Communications Officer Chris Tennill said. “Whereas we have other districts who have been looking at it for three to four years. We’ve had the luxury to watch what other school districts do and see how they’ve planned and addressed it.”
And address it they will—and have begun, in fact, in a place where other school districts struggled as well: summer school.

THE SUMMER MONTHS

Perhaps one of the most unique aspects of an education at Clayton is its summer school offering. Far past its humble roots based in pure remediation, summer school has historically been on a whole different level in Clayton, offering state-mandated classes and extra elective-type classes not found in the standard year course offering.
But when times get tough, choices have to be made, things must be cut, and even the mighty must fall. Or get downsized, at least. And because it is by definition not a part of the essential school year, summer school is a ripe choice for cuts.
“When you’re looking at a budget with a gap of $2.1 million, those are the questions you have to ask,” Tennill said. “It keeps you from having to make hard choices or have conversations about things that happen during the school year, so it’s a pretty easy trade-off to make.”
And logically, it was.
“Basically we cut $250,000 out of summer programs, but yet we didn’t have to do anything to teachers during the school year or anything like that,” Chief Financial Officer Mary Jo Gruber said. “We still value good quality classes for the summer that meet the needs of the students.”
The essentials are in no danger, of course, meaning that thus far, Clayton students can still get pesky requirements such as American Government and Personal Finance out of the way in the span of a month and free up a semester period during the school year. Credit recovery is, unsurprisingly, the number one priority.
The classes deemed unessential, and therefore subject to trimming, have typically been the elective courses—the ones whose disappearance will impact the lowest number of people.
The operative word there, of course, is lowest. The number is not zero, and those affected are the teachers themselves.
“A couple years ago, I was encouraged to teach an enrichment class,” history teacher and Academic Director Josh Meyers said. “So I gave up one of my American Government classes and did a film class. I taught it for two years. That program just got cut. Those are the first things to go. It’s hard for teachers to innovate like that and then get cut.”
The perceived non-essentials are indeed the first to go, but the District on a whole seems determined to keep summer school as a whole, or at least maintain as much of the integrity of the program as is viable.
“For a while summer school was one of the few places where we got reliable state money for credit courses,” Tennill said. “The state has significantly reduced what it reimburses school districts for summer programs. There are a lot of school districts, if you look around right now, that aren’t even offering summer programs.”
Board of Education President Sonny Buttar agrees.
“We’ve been very lucky to be able to offer the same summer school classes this year, although now at a lower price point,” Buttar said. “Administration recommended discontinuing joint teaching arrangements, modifying teacher salaries. We’re trying to serve more for fewer dollars. We’ll reevaluate this fall and see how we did, but we’re very conscious of summer school cost.”
So far, the impact has been contained to a few students that perhaps may have taken one of the more unique electives. And on a whole, the effect has been satisfactorily minimal.
“We prided ourselves on running a summer school that was different from other summer schools,” Meyers said. “But can Clayton offer a world-class education without a robust summer school program? Absolutely we can.”
But even with a few cuts in the summer academy program, there is no easy fix. The question that comes up, of course, is this: what next?

CUT TALK

“We’re operating on $52 million a year,” Tennill said. “If you think about that, really there aren’t a lot of variable costs and the majority of our money is spent on staffing.”
Student enrollment is, for the most part, steady, and so are class sizes and course offerings. On one hand, for landlocked Clayton, which also happens to be a touch over two miles across at its widest point, such constancy just serves to reinforce the relative stability. But there’s a rather unfortunate side-effect.
“If you get into a situation where you have to significantly shrink the District’s budget and expenditures, there’s not a lot of things you can really lop off the top before you start hitting people, students and classrooms,” Tennill said.
Other schools are feeling the same sentiment; hence those layoffs that so frequently grace the headlines. Clayton isn’t quite at that point, nor does it want to be. And so, thus far, the cuts made have been chiefly at the fringes, with the hope of minimal impact.
They are, for the most part, individual and not directly related. Can cheaper supplies be found? Can class sizes be increased? The proverbial “need versus want” argument prevails. Cuts are being made in the realm of programs as well, and with the same practical sentiment that governed the summer school decision.
“I appreciate that they’re trying to cut without impacting too many people,” Meyers said. “But it does seem like they’re cutting in isolation. The issue is not cutting. We all know that we need the cut the budget. The problem that many teachers have is that haphazard manner of cutting—‘let’s look at four administrative positions here, something else there’—instead of laying it all out and looking at the big picture, and prioritizing.”
Much stronger than the notion of what can be let go is the sense of what is indispensable.
“In Clayton we have some programs that are very expensive, but that our community has come to expect,” Buttar said. “Conferenced English is untouchable. We believe that writing is key for success in the future, and we’ve put our money where our mouth is for a long, long time.”
Both conferenced English and extended science lab periods every other day cost the District more, as they require more teachers to teach fewer classes each. Yet, CHS principal Louise Losos noted, they must stay. They’re part of what Clayton has traditionally done, and stood by.
Buttar also noted that Clayton has a high affinity for the arts, which, as a result, will probably be kept, though on a smaller scale.
“We’re going to have to measure things against each other,” Buttar said. “We’re going to have to have those hard conversations, take two things that are both very valued, and ask ourselves which we put our money behind.”

BOND ISSUES

Perhaps the prime issue that the causes its fair share of budgetary confusion is that famous duo of bonds passed only a few years ago: Propositions S and W.
“The timing of these bond issues was problematic,” Meyers said. “Now we’re like a lot of Americans—we’re house-poor. We’ve got these great facilities and not enough money to pay for them. That’s largely a temporary problem—when the economy improves we’ll be able to recover, furnish the house.”
And while Prop W has every right to still be in full swing, the effects of Prop S, which went from being half a million under to $65,000 overspent, are what cause the most perceptual puzzlement.
“The proposition schedule came in way under budget, but additional things and renovation work and the decision to go beyond renovations caused it to go over,” Gruber said. “We had $6 million worth of work that was not scheduled to be done.”
Part of the extra money went to portions of the CHS building plan that had previously been cut because of cost issues, such as the hydraulic pit in the auditorium, and some $2 million in credit went to Facility Services, where it went toward essential projects that would have normally used what Buttar called “raincheck” funds: the replacement of the elementary school roofs, plus some infrastructure repair, and the replacement of those schools’ sprinkler systems at the behest of the fire marshal.
And CHS itself had some surprises. While renovating the existing building, unanticipated problems presented themselves.
“They’d done some pre-work,” Losos said. “They knew some of it—they didn’t know all of it. We didn’t anticipate all of the rewiring, and there were some hiccups along the way. A day before school was supposed to start, we discovered the PA system hadn’t been completely wired. And you just can’t have school like that.”
Off went a portion of the remaining funds towards overtime, which was in itself a large reason for the overstepping of the budget due to the scramble to have the high school ready for the first day of school.
The perceptual issues hardly stop there, however.
“There’s this perception that we are spending money on buildings instead of people,” Losos said.
But in the department where it all started—science—the changes are greatly appreciated.
“Several teachers were teaching in sub-par environments,” science department chair Mike Howe said. “Now we have a place to teach. [Last year] some weren’t teaching in lab classrooms. No way would I have thought of doing a lab on a short day last year.”
And the construction can be viewed as an investment in the education itself, as well.
“I think the school environment is a part of a child’s education,” Buttar said. “Connections, conversations and relationships between teachers and students are the most important things for children to learn–but the environment is also very important. With Prop S and Prop W we were able to improve our school environment…now we’re turning our energy and efforts towards budget and curriculum.”

THE TOOLS OF THE TRADE

Money buys stuff. Stuff—or more eloquently phrased, everything from up-to-date textbooks and computers to such large-scale projects as a renovation—is necessary to an education. Money is tightening. So the question becomes this: How much stuff do you really need?
The answer is not clear-cut. It turns out that the answer depends on which department, and more often than not, which teacher, you’re talking about.
Perpetually under the heat, though, is the technology–regardless of the individual, and that is because it is simultaneously costly and, like it or not, integral to today’s education.
“Technology is becoming something we’re actually teaching,” Chief Information Officer Devin Davis said.
Howe agrees.
“The computer access is so important that if the District didn’t fund it, I’d consider funding it out of my own pocket,” Howe said.
Although, Howe added, it’s not necessarily a question of being ahead of the curve when it comes to computers, gadgets, or even lab spaces and classrooms themselves—not when all the schools in the area are on the same page.
“It’s state-of-the-art,” Howe said. “But it’s also the standard.”
Clearly the numerous enclaves of computers won’t be going away anytime soon. But even within that category Davis finds that the weighing of costs is rather tricky business. Laptops have about 35 percent higher cost, so to move towards more laptops, the cost of desktops would have to be reduced by that factor.
“So, what’s better?” Davis said. “My job is keeping the lid on Pandora’s box, because there’s a lot of toys out there, and maybe they’re good in the classroom. But we need to get the best bang for the buck.”
But more so than the “toys” of the IT department, the SmartBoards seem to be garnering the largest teacher response.
“Personally I’m not sure if the massive expenditure in technology necessarily results in improved education,” history teacher Sam Harned said. “The problem with technology is that it always has this dynamic of obsolescence–what happens if SmartBoards come out with new version, how do we accommodate that in the budget?”
The consensus on SmartBoards is nothing new. They’re convenient and certainly the next available step in the chalkboard-whiteboard family. The issue lies largely with their necessity, especially in more precarious financial times.
“It stings a little bit,” Meyers said. “You see the greenhouse and the new SmartBoards and technology and then you see random cutting.”
Convenient? Yes. Necessary? No. A good class does not the latest SmartBoard make—or for that matter, the greatest technology and facilities in general. A well-furnished room has potential that only a living, breathing person can tap.
“The bottom line is people make the difference in schools, machines don’t make a difference,” Harned said. “Building plans ultimately don’t make a difference, people make the difference. So if you’re going to put money in something, I think that would be front and center.”

THE ESSENTIAL TEACHER

New laptops are all good. But the greatest investment a district can make is on a good teacher. Popular opinion says so. The finances back it up.
Per-pupil allocation is around $17,000–and around 85 percent of that goes straight towards teachers: salaries, benefits, and the like.
There is a common mission among all school districts, regardless of location, resources, or language; to prepare all students for the future. Some districts may be lucky enough to have the necessary means to provide their students with cutting edge technology, others with state-of-the-art facilities. But the districts that are truly fortunate are the ones valued for the individuals that create the community.
In order to deliver a successful education, there must be an innovative administration with visionary goals, an external public with undying support and ideally–and most importantly—a coalition of teachers integrated together solely based on their fervor to teach.
“I don’t know if there’s a higher calling than teaching,” Buttar said. “To understand and identify in each kid their talent, a gift that will help them change the world and to fan the flame of knowledge and that desire to know, to help them reach their potential. Teaching’s about having only nine months to help a kid and then passing the baton to the next teacher. You call out the best in the kid, and if you can’t do that, you demand it, and if you can’t do that, you kick the kid in the butt, you do whatever it takes. That’s what Clayton is about. The ability to recognize each child’s abilities and demand the best of them has nothing to do with dollars. We just have to recruit and retain teachers that have that ability.”
It is to say that although technology and excess resources may have a potential in enhancing a student’s educational experience, there is nothing more crucial than the presence of experienced, dedicated, and highly educated teachers.
“You put 25 kids and Sam Harned in a room with a piece of chalk and magic’s going to happen,” Meyers said. “The number one essential thing in education is the teacher. If you’ve got a world-class teacher in a classroom, you don’t need textbooks, you don’t need SmartBoards, the kids will learn at a high level.”
Furthermore, the guidance of a good teacher isn’t merely valued for the material that they communicate, but for the relationships that they create.
“You can have the best curriculum in the world, but if the wrong person is teaching it, then it is a waste of time,” CHS Department Head of Physical Education and Health Melissa Hobick said.
Superintendent Sharmon Wilkinson agrees.
“I recently talked to some students on the advisory council and asked them what they valued in the educational opportunities here at Clayton,” Wilkinson said. “And a couple of them mentioned the relationships that they have with the teachers and the people in this district that care about them.”
The interactions that take place between teacher and student are the foundation of the Clayton school district. A teacher can attempt to impart all the knowledge they have in a subject area to his or her students, but none of the information will resonate in the students’ minds if they aren’t willing to listen.

THOSE PRICELESS THINGS

The School District of Clayton spends millions of dollars investing in top-notch teachers, keeping up with technology, buying online database services, maintaining the flow of supplies, and purchasing utilities–all to offer the education that Clayton is famous for.
But there are just some things that money can’t buy.
“You can’t place a price tag on a great classroom moment,” Harned said. “What you’re trying to look for is producing as many great moments in the classroom as possible.”
Thus it is the relationships, the respect and trust between teacher and student that enables the impact of the process.
“In my opinion, it’s the instant learning opportunity, the face-to-face interaction that’s invaluable,” CHS Assistant Principal Marci Pieper said. “The relationships that we have here at Clayton is incredible, it’s not like that in any other school. When people hear about what our kids are doing and their interactions with the teachers, they’re just blown away. They think ‘I’d never want to have to spend an extra 30 minutes with my teacher,’ but for Clayton students, it’s like second nature. The face-to-face contact and the small class sizes are huge here. It’s what makes Clayton work.”
Howe agrees.
“That’s the biggest part of a good school,” Howe said “Students who want to learn. That desire to learn what we teach is priceless.”
Likewise, the passion and dedication that experienced teachers bring to the community are invaluable. The student end of relationships is only half; it takes two, and the teachers’ attitudes are equally priceless. In the end, it seems that most believe that though the obtaining of a world-class teacher is very much a financial affair, once at Clayton the individual way teachers conduct themselves—with students, parents and each other—is something you just can’t slap a price tag onto.
“I believe that you can’t place a value on the relationships established in this district, you can’t place a price tag on knowing that there are adults, people who care about you,” Wilkinson said. “You can’t buy the passion that different teachers bring to their job. Teachers who are willing to take the extra time to sit down with students to explain something; teachers who recognize their responsibilities and offer a helping hand… that’s something you can’t buy. I believe that the things that you find in talented, passionate teachers and staff are the things that are truly invaluable.”
But although it is agreed that such passion is priceless, some worry that revaluation of the budget may keep that passion from finding its way to the district.
“Clayton has always been known to attract the best teachers because of the benefits, including pay,” Hobick said. “But if that changes, we may not get the best new teachers and some of the current teachers may consider leaving.”
In addition, some teachers see the potential consequences of the possibility of increased class sizes and decreased staffing due to budget cuts. For teachers who find themselves involved with various different activities around the school, such as coaching a sport or filling the position of club sponsors, decreased staffing may lead to over-extension.
“My concern is that over time, we’ll have an impact that’s difficult to measure,” Meyers said. “If I’m stressed and I’m not getting properly compensated, I might, say, not choose to assign an essay test. I might choose multiple-choice. And it’s not conscious, ‘Oh, the budget’s getting cut, so I’m going to stick it to the Man and change the way I teach.’ It’s the little decisions that teachers make over time that I worry about.”
In the current economic climate, change is inevitable. There is no question that the district must begin to adapt and compromise.
“I think you want to keep the impact of financial compromises furthest away from students,” Wilkinson said. “That isn’t to say that it won’t look different down the line. The world that our students in kindergarten today are coming into has changed. It looks different now, so we have to open ourselves to challenge the status quo. We need to start innovating and begin thinking creatively, so that we may provide that still rich educational experience to our students, yet still being mindful of the resources that we have to allocate towards doing so.”
Although there may be differing perspectives on how to go about this change, there is one value that is shared across the board. And it goes back to the common mission of preparing students for the future.
“People come to Clayton for a certain education,” Buttar said. “What is that? High achievement and high expectations. We have people transfer here because they want their kid to be challenged and held to the highest expectations. I want people to see Clayton as a beacon of certain values, a light that people see and say, ‘That’s what I want for my kid.’”