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The band uniforms were falling apart. Literally coming apart at the seams during football games.
So Russell Shedd decided to run. The music teacher at Scripps Ranch High School was in his ninth year at the school. He’d seen his budget go from $700 a year for everything, to zero.
“I fix instruments with duct tape,” he said.
Shedd printed out sponsorship forms and ran the Avalon 50, a 50-mile long-distance race on Catalina Island. He raised $34,000, which went to buy sparkling new uniforms for his student band members. The uniforms arrived on Nov. 17. Shedd and his colleagues had one night to get everyone fitted for the school’s last event, a competition on Nov. 18-19. They did it, and Shedd saw the uniforms in action — once.
That could have been the first and last time he saw his students perform in the new uniforms.
This year, for the second straight year, Shedd got a pink slip. This time, the slip wasn’t rescinded. He’s been laid off, and he’s already started looking elsewhere in the country for a job.
“There are hundreds of jobs in Texas,” he said.
Shedd’s just one of the more than 1,500 educators at San Diego Unified laid off this year, as the district struggles with a projected $120 million deficit. Discussions are currently ongoing between the teachers union and the district to find a solution to the crisis. Any solution will probably involve teachers making concessions on a series of promised pay raises.
I’m spending the next few days visiting schools and talking with teachers, students and parents to see the layoff crisis at ground level. I spent Monday afternoon with Shedd, and decided to transcribe a few of the exchanges we had throughout our interview. I also recorded this short video with Shedd on my iPhone.
It’s clear from our conversation that Shedd’s views are somewhat unconventional. He knows that.
He thinks he’s paid just fine. He wants to see teachers rigorously evaluated and laid off according to their ability, not simply their level of experience. And, he says, though he works long hours, it’s worth it for the four months off he estimates he gets a year.
Shedd’s also a powerhouse at his school.
He said he works about 80 hours a week during the fall. The music program at Scripps Ranch has expanded significantly since he arrived, and, in addition to teaching students, he now runs the school’s orchestra and marching band, and is the resident advisor for the winter guard program. Oh, and he directs the school’s annual musical, too.
Here’s what Shedd had to say about his profession and the district’s financial troubles, on the second-to-last day of the school year:
How does this whole layoff mess translate into your everyday work at school? Is part of you already moving on?
What I try and do is make every day as if it’s my last day with my kids. I know that even if I wasn’t pink-slipped something could happen that allows me not to be here, so I don’t take a lot of those days for granted. I’m professional to the end and my kids expect that from me.
Some people have acted differently …
So you see this affecting kids?
It’s affected the kids. My last two performances also had a profound effect on me. Knowing that this could be the last time I see them, I was pretty emotional about that.
At my last concert, it was hard to think that this could be the last thing I conduct here. So, that was hard.
Help me understand whether high school kids are paying any attention to this; whether pink slips are just words they hear out there, or if they really, tangibly, know what’s going on.
This year’s different.
In the past it was just “Oh, this teacher got a pink slip, but they’re going to be back.” But this year the kids know it’s different. They know that the impact is profound.
Do you think students are literally saying “How does this teacher get to keep their job, while this guy, who’s great, gets laid off?”
Kids bring that to me all the time. They say “We don’t understand why X teacher is keeping their job, and I don’t learn anything in their classroom, they don’t connect with me, they’re a horrible teacher. Yet, Y teacher, who’s a new teacher, who has inspired me to maybe start my career in this field, is leaving.”
It defeats the purpose, the basis of this whole country. If you work hard on your own and build confidence in yourself and push yourself, then you’ll be rewarded for that.
I’ve spent 20 years studying music and my career, and I get to this point and think I’m going to be OK, but that isn’t enough time. Just think, if I was born two years earlier — that’s the only thing separating me from my job. That sends the wrong message.
The worst part is, we’re going to have a generation of kids who are going to grow up with this horrible notion of the education system.
How else does this impact kids, to have these layoffs happening?
I have some kids who say “If you’re not going to be here next year, I’m leaving.”
I’ve had so many kids, who I’ve never seen cry before, get upset and say “You’re the reason I come to school. You’re the reason I’m in music.”
That’s unbelievably flattering and humbling, and that’s what you hope for, as an educator — to have that kind of impact on kids. When you get to do it, and make great music and be successful, you have a winning combination that the kids want to be a part of.
On a personal level, you work really hard, do you think the union should make concessions on the pay raises, to save people’s jobs?
I disagree with probably most educators. I think we’re paid fine.
Especially if you look at the amount of time we have off.
It doesn’t sound like you have much time off!
Well, if you want to be successful in any field, you’ve got to put in your own time. I do it willingly, without reservation. I don’t really worry about what I’m paid for.
We are supposedly working 10 months of the year, but realistically, if you factor in all the vacation time, we get four months off.
I know a lot of people are going to take issue with me on that, but I think I’m paid fine. Should I be compensated more for my extra hours? Um, maybe. I know in some states, the stipend for band directors is $15,000 or $20,000.
If you’re a teacher, you start at 7 a.m. You’re done at 2:30 p.m., contractually. Maybe you stay ‘til 4. A lot of people complain about “Oh, I’ve got to grade papers,” and I’m like “But that’s a part of the gig.” The small business owner doesn’t get paid for counting his till, or doing inventory. That’s just what you do if you want to be successful.
We could learn a lot from that as a profession.
If we don’t, as teachers, vote to make concessions, I would say you’re looking at five to 10 years where the voters don’t approve anything for us. They’re going to say “Your own teachers couldn’t even vote to save their own colleagues.”
We can debate whether it’s right or wrong, but that’s not the question we’re posed with. That’s not the problem we have in front of us. Even if I wasn’t getting a pink slip, I would gladly, soundly give up my raise, if that meant another teacher could have the same impact I have on my kids.
Will Carless is an investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego currently focused on local education. You can reach him at email@example.com or 619.550.5670.
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