A Brisbane teacher’s uncertain future
As the school year draws to and end around the Bay, school districts are struggling with finances. Take Brisbane. It’s a small district – only two elementary and one middle school – but its problems provide a window into those faced by districts across the state.
For four consecutive years, Brisbane has had to slash its budget due to a lack of funds. Until now, it’s tried hard to shield students from the cuts. But next fall could mark a big change. One principal will go back and forth between the two elementary schools. There may also be more combination classes, for example, with first and second graders in one room. And for first through fifth grade, class sizes may increase to as much as 33, far greater than the 20 to 1 ratio pushed across the state in better times.
Watching the school system fall apart is hard for everyone, but for one teacher, it’s personal. Tomorrow, the last day of school, Justine Ferguson will say goodbye to her students and the district, possibly forever. KALW’s Judy Silber has her story.
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[sounds of drumming]
JUDY SILBER: This is my friend, Justine Ferguson. She loves drumming, and she’s really good with kids. For the past nine years, Justine’s been a teacher. She’s taught in Brisbane for the past four.
JUSTINE FERGUSON: We do lots of rhythm with our hands, mostly, we do lots of rhythm.
A year ago, in March, Justine got a pink slip. She and 24,000 other California teachers. It wasn’t a shock; it’s become an annual ritual for districts to give notice to teachers, just in case of a worst-case budget scenario. Sure enough, by summer, the district had hired her back, but as a temporary teacher, splitting days between an elementary and middle school.
Justine had never taught middle school before. Still, it was a job, and she taught for the year. Then, March rolled around again, and she was told her temporary contract would not be renewed. And this time, there’s much more uncertainty about whether she’ll return to Brisbane in the fall.
It’s 7:50am, a few weeks before the end of school, and Justine and I are walking to Brisbane Elementary where she spends mornings teaching first grade. At this point, she doesn't have much hope of a position for next fall.
SILBER: So do you think about, like as you’re walking to school in the morning, do you ever think about how you won’t be doing this for very much longer?
FERGUSON: I don’t really want to think that far ahead, but I do at night, hence the insomnia, so...(laughs). But in the morning, I’m just focused on getting to school...Getting to school.
Justine’s from the Boston area. A few years after college, she went to Hiroshima City, Japan, where she taught English. Three years later, she moved to the Bay Area. She got her teaching certificate and started teaching grade school.
SILBER: So we’re at the school now?
SILBER: Is that a garden?
FERGUSON: Yeah, we have two gardens. We have some parent gardeners, amazing parent gardeners...
The Brisbane District is fortunate. A supportive community has softened its financial pain. Last March, local voters approved a parcel tax, saving the art and music programs. The district also held a big fundraiser in April, raising $75,000. Pretty good, but now the district is still about $1 million short if it wants to keep its current programs for the next school year.
There’s still a reserve fund, but at this rate, that money will soon run out. So Brisbane administrators are considering every teacher position very carefully.
FERGUSON: You want to go in here?
We’re in the teacher’s lounge where Tiffany Miller is washing her hands, minutes before the first bell.
FERGUSON: She works in special ed here.
She has a job next year but says this is a hard time for everyone.
TIFFANY MILLER: There’s just a lot of uncertainty. Things are inconsistent and it feels like you never know when more bad news is going to strike. And you’re just trying to do your job as a teacher and have fun with the children, but then you find out funding is cut for this, or funding is cut for that, and now we have to fundraise in a really small community just to have an art and music program and to have a kindergarten that’s not 30 children big, or whatever it is. So everyone is just a little bit tense.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Good morning. Good morning…
The bell has rung and Justine greets every child at the classroom door. She bustles around, answering questions and calling out instructions, with an eye out for any child whose attention has strayed. She often complains of exhaustion and it’s easy to see why.
FERGUSON: As a teacher, you have to be a psychologist, or counselor, social worker, mom or dad. So you have to wear many hats when you’re in the classroom.
CHILDREN: Twenty, thirty, forty, fifty…
Bouncing between two schools adds to the strain. Plus, the uncertainty about her future. Justine worries about the children and the subliminal messages they take in from the stress all around them, even from positive events such as fundraising.
FERGUSON: I don’t know, how does it make a child feel when they wake up in the morning and think, "Okay, today I have to make so much money for my school so I can get an education"? I don’t know if our forefathers and foremothers thought this is what public education is supposed to be.
All spring, the district tells Justine she’s too far down the seniority list to be re-hired. But then the message changes. The district has figured out a way to re-hire the three teachers ahead of her. And now Brisbane Elementary School principal Chad Carvey says it's possible they could keep one more.
CHAD CARVEY: We need one more teacher to change our sister school, Panorama, from having all combination classes and high numbers to having all straight classes. It completely changes the picture of the quality of education with just one more teacher.
That one more teacher would be Justine. The school board has to approve it, and Carvey says the board’s decision hinges in part on whether it thinks voters will approve yet another parcel tax. That leaves Justine waiting, possibly all summer, for a job that may or may not open up.
CARVEY: You can’t say the words that you want to say, that everything’s going to be okay. And so, you see that in their eyes, that hunger, that desperation, to just tell me I can teach, right? I mean, think of that. That’s a sacrifice in itself. All they want to do is to teach our kids.
FERGUSON: I don't know, There’s a bit of hopefulness, but then there’s the part of me that doesn’t want to get my hopes up. So I guess it can be an emotional roller coaster, just to go back and forth. Do I remain calm and accepting? Or hopeful and excited? Anyway, that’s what’s going on.