06/20/2011 06:52 pm ET | Updated Aug 20, 2011

Americans To Teachers And School Districts: Stop Fighting And Start Teaching

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When the Hesby Oaks School reopened its doors in 2006 after being closed for two decades, the community of Encino, Calif., had reason to be pleased. The Los Angeles Unified School District had invested more than $24 million dollars in the school's reopening. It was a big investment, to be sure, but one that promised to pay dividends. And indeed, over the years that followed, that promise was largely fulfilled, as the school’s consistently high test scores brought new families to the area.

Five years on, though, that investment isn’t looking quite as good. To save money, the district has proposed a round of budget cuts that would lead to widespread teacher layoffs. Hesby Oaks, “the little school that could," as one first-grade teacher recently referred to it, is poised to lose no less than half of its teachers.

All across the country, in towns from Long Beach, Calif., to Levittown, N.Y., teachers and school districts have been waging pitched battles over budget proposals. And while the teacher-versus-district narrative that runs through each of these disputes is usually well-reported, you tend to hear less about how these battles affect the community at large -- the local citizens who tend to be none too pleased to learn that teachers and administrators are fighting over their tax money instead of using it to educate the community's children.

Alana Rubens, the mother of a fifth grader and first grader at Hesby Oaks, said she worried that Hesby might shutdown again, and she blamed the Los Angeles Unified School District. She thought it was "shooting itself in the foot."

“You’re going to have middle-class flight from public schools, and they’re going to go back to private schools,” she said.

In Encino, as in towns across the country, most residents have been throwing their weight behind the teachers, speaking up on their behalf in school-board meetings and to the press.

But in some cases, as these conflicts have dragged on, there have been reports of community members growing impatient with the teachers and siding with the bureaucrats.

Sally Klingel, a labor expert at Cornell University, said that the phenomenon of the public turning against labor unions is fairly common, specifically within the public sector.

When it comes to teachers and hospital workers and the like, she said, "you know exactly how much someone is making and how much it costs you."

In March, at a packed school board meeting in Lindenhurst, N.Y., residents asked the teachers' union to make some concessions in an effort to save a number of the district’s extracurricular programs. Their requests fell on deaf ears. Halfway through the meeting, the teachers rose, grabbed their coats and left the auditorium.

John Lisi, a Lindenhurst resident and the president of a local civic association, pointed out that if the walk-out was intended to rally the community around the teachers’ cause, it didn’t quite work out as planned. Members of several PTA groups went out into the hall and tried to persuade the teachers to come back into the room, but the teachers refused and the meeting fizzled out.

"Everyone needs to be paid and compensated well," Lisi said.

"But at the same time," he added, "the last couple of years have been extremely unusual economically.”

He suggested that teachers take the slow economy into consideration when deciding whether to accept a pay freeze. The only alternative would be to hike up taxes, he said, and if that happens, it could have a detrimental effect on the town as a whole.

“No one’s going to live here because they won’t be able to send their kids to school,” he said.

Just down the highway in Smithtown, N.Y., a similar scene unfolded not long ago: The Smithtown Teachers Association walked out of a March school board meeting and, like their fellow teachers in Lindenhurst, they have yet to reach a deal.

Mark Slavinski, one of 25 people from the community who spoke at the meeting, was appalled. “I'd like for every one of them to go to their classrooms tomorrow, look their students in the eyes and tell them their checking accounts are more important than their students' education,” he said .

Compared with other budget battles, the fights over educational funding tend to elicit strong emotions -- especially anger. If your house gets rezoned, you can move. If your daughter gets a poor first-grade education, there isn't much you can do about it.

After objecting to the Wisconsin bill that stripped most public-service workers of their collective bargaining rights in March, Joseph Kiriaki, the director of a local teachers’ association in Kenosha, Wis., received two very angry letters -- Actually, describing them as angry would be an understatement.

The first, an email from a supporter of the bill, contained "private" information about Kiriaki’s family and advised him to prepare for a 'visit' to his house. The second arrived in his mailbox from a fake address and contained two yellow-page clippings -- one for a self-defense training facility and one for a funeral home.

The budget battle, he said, was rupturing the community. “We took our side,” he said. “We rallied. We protested. And we were at the capital with thousands of people that took issue against this. But, because I was one of the organizers, I suppose I was targeted by folks that took sides themselves.”