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Superintendents Are Calling Out Politicians More as Budgets Grow Precarious

Stephanie Elizalde was clear in her recent State of the District address: Dallas students’ accomplishments have happened without adequate funding for education from state lawmakers.

Elizalde, in her second year at the helm of Texas’ second-largest district, was frustrated.

The Dallas district was in the process of approving a $1.9 billion budget, offsetting a $187 million shortfall by pulling from its reserves and cutting more than 700 positions. At the same time, there was a nearly $33 billion surplus in the state budget—none of which was given to schools. The state legislature hasn’t approved an increase in per-student funding in five years, according to The Dallas Morning News, while Republicans who dominate state politics have set their sights on legislation to start a private school choice program and accused public schools of indoctrinating students.

“Did the Texas legislature fully fund all the new safety requirements that they so intelligently wrote into law? No,” Elizalde said in her April address, according to the Dallas Morning News, referring to a new requirement that every school hire an armed guard. “Did we make our schools safer than ever anyway? Yes.”

“Did the Texas legislature use a nearly $33 billion budget surplus to give teachers a pay raise after inflation effectively gave them a pay cut?” she continued. “No.”

The criticism of political leaders from the superintendent was frank.

“It was both a buildup [of frustration] over time, and also there’s all this money in our state, and we’re putting none of it to public ed.—how can that be?” Elizalde said in an interview with Education Week. “What is it that people don’t get about the value that public ed. brings to the economy in the state of Texas?”

Elizalde’s public and pointed criticisms of state lawmakers stand out against a backdrop of superintendents historically trying to keep the peace with the people who control their state funding.

Past research has confirmed a hesitance by superintendents to engage in politics, and an overwhelming majority of superintendents reported in a national survey last year that politics was the top source of stress in their jobs. That stress can come from high-profile debates about politicized topics, like book bans and LGTBQ+ students’ and employees’ rights. But it can also come from dealings with policymakers—a complicated dance of holding leaders to account for the future of public school students and not going too far and tarnishing critical relationships.

Despite the difficulty, more superintendents this year are stepping out of their comfort zones and publicly drawing attention to what they feel are funding shortfalls state lawmakers and other politicians could relieve as districts across the country confront budget gaps caused by the convergence of the end of federal pandemic aid, declining enrollment, and inflation.

In a social media post in December, Richmond, Va., Superintendent Jason Kamras called the Republican governor’s proposed budget “unacceptable,” saying it didn’t provide adequate funding to support students. And in June, Javier Montañez, superintendent in Providence, R.I., blasted the Democratic mayor’s proposed budget, saying it “shortchanges” the public school system by tens of millions of dollars.

The leader of a large district feels a responsibility to speak out

In her April speech, Elizalde also took on claims from politicians that have grown more frequent in recent years that public schools are indoctrinating students.

“We teach our children what Betsy Ross [the upholsterer known for sewing the first American flag] did, why we have Veterans Day, and the responsibilities of good citizenship,” Elizalde said. “If that’s ‘woke indoctrination,’ then I’m the starting center fielder for the Texas Rangers.”

The Dallas district isn’t yet in a fiscal “crisis,” Elizalde told EdWeek, because it still has money in its reserves, even after pulling nearly $200 million to balance this year’s budget. But that isn’t sustainable, she said, and she feels it is her moral imperative to advocate for her schools, staff, and students, even when it’s uncomfortable.

“I have some responsibility leading the second-largest district in Texas because people are going to pay attention to what I say, not because it’s Stephanie Elizalde, but because it’s Dallas ISD,” she said. “What do I do? Do I go, ‘It’s uncomfortable for me, so I don’t want to rock the boat,’ or do I understand that when I raised my hand and said, ‘Put me in, coach,’ I also accepted all parts of the job, not just the parts I like or the parts I’m comfortable with.”

Leaders advise: Be clear and passionate, but careful with blame

Andrea Castañeda stood in front of a camera, took a deep breath, then hit “record.”

“This is a terrible and devastating, heartbreaking moment for us,” said Castañeda, the superintendent of the Salem-Keizer district in Oregon, in a video calling on state lawmakers to “look carefully” and courageously at school funding formulas to bolster K-12 education funding. Castañeda made the video with three other superintendents of large Oregon districts—Portland, Bend-La Pine, and Medford—that, combined, enroll about 20 percent of the state’s public school students. Each district faces budget shortfalls of millions of dollars.

This year, the Salem-Keizer district is cutting $70 million from its spending and more than 400 positions.

The Oregon superintendents’ video outlines each district’s budget reality. The district leaders are more pleading than critical. Still, the presentation directly ties the districts’ budget woes to inadequate state funding and publicly urges members of the Democratically controlled legislature to take action.

That can cause conflict, but Castañeda said she feels it is superintendents’ responsibility to tell “the most honest version of the reality of what’s happening in schools, because if no one does that, no one will know how grave and potentially dire the situation could become.

“There’s a certain gentlemen’s agreement that exists between district administrators and state policymakers who make decisions about the financial future of schools,” she continued. “I think civility is an important part of successful, sustainable advocacy, but there is a difference between honesty and a lack of civility.”

It is “incumbent on” superintendents facing budget problems to “find their own way to tell their story,” Castañeda said, but it is just as important that they are “equally attentive to what you’re trying to accomplish as you are to what your actions might accidentally damage or break.”

“Indignation feels good in the moment that it motivates us, but indignation and self-righteousness does lasting damage to relationships,” she said. “So, be clear and passionate, but be measured in how you are levying blame or attributing responsibility for harm.”

At an Education Week event in early May, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona called on states to step up with more funding as tens of billions of dollars in COVID-relief money expires this fall.

So far, however, that’s not happening in much of the country, leaving superintendents to fight an uphill battle.

After a few years of widespread state budget surpluses, more states are bracing for a downturn in tax collections. As a result, some are either cutting education budgets or declining to expand them.

Superintendents are determined to ‘use our voice’

Elizalde, in Dallas, agreed that districts should be intentional about “attacking problems, not people” when making public statements. Calling out individuals by name can take away from the overall message and leave people feeling attacked and unwilling to listen and collaborate, she said.

Conflict, she said, is inevitable, but combat is optional.

It’s a balance she has spent her entire 30-plus-year career trying to master, with varying degrees of success.

When she served as the superintendent in Austin, Elizalde pointedly advocated for her district, calling out policymakers’ shortcomings at the state and federal levels. The callouts got a lot of media attention for a news cycle or two, she said, but policymakers began to tune her out. She wasn’t accomplishing anything tangible, she said.

Now, with her focus more refined on criticizing problems rather than individuals, Elizalde believes she is best serving her school community.

Still, she understands the discomfort that superintendents feel about speaking out and that she has some privilege as a tenured leader.

“I’m not using Dallas as a steppingstone, where I’m planning on being here for a few years then moving on to a larger district—that’s not what I’m doing anymore,” Elizalde said. “This is my last stop, if you will, so I think that does probably put me in a different position than many of my peers.”

Castañeda, in Oregon, said her recent experience has made her and her peers feel empowered, as if they have a “voice outside the board room” that they can leverage to support their schools for years to come.

“We have a voice that we can exercise that people will listen to,” she said, “because people care about schools.”

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