Building Walls or Burning Bridges…

This week, the Ottawa High School Board voted to end their Building Trades program and let the teacher go at the end of the year. Since their Monday night meeting, there have been a week of protests, a sit-in, and a lot of controversy. I’ve refrained from writing about the situation at Ottawa High School this week for a few reasons.

First of all, it’s usually a good idea to wait till the dust settles so that the resultant rumors, gossip and mis-reporting can be corrected.

Secondly, I’m a friend (or at least an acquaintance) with several of the principals on all sides of the situation, from administration and school board members to Dave Keely–the much-admired Building Trades teacher who will apparently lose his job in May (he has constructed the amazing sets for our summer plays every year). I’ve sat on a smaller school board (and was even president for a time) and I have at least some idea of how complicated the whole situation is.

And thirdly, there’s not a lot of light I can shed on the whole situation, which is addressed here and here and here.

The basic facts are simple, and there are two issues being discussed.

The High School District is about $3.5 million dollars in debt, and has been looking for ways to cut costs. Everyone understands this. However, according to most news reports, the Board voted the administration a 5% pay increase and approved a three-year contract extension for them two months ago. Many in the community are incensed that a teacher and a program are apparently being sacrificed, while the administration doesn’t seem to be suffering.

The following morning, a group of students, as large as 300 by some reports, staged a sit-in. The administration tried to disperse them, but eventually took stronger measures, and a group of 100-200 students ended up across the street, where they have been protesting the rest of the week, joined by parents, and community and union members; many of these students received suspensions, but how many and for how long is still not clear.

The Chicago media have been down here, and a few national figures have been writing about this on various social media. The Save Dave campaign is apparently shutting down while the students and parents regroup. The protests ended this (Saturday) afternoon and the group intends to seek a meeting with the School Board.

So it appears that, for now at least, the active demonstrations are over, and I’m left with a few thoughts.

First of all, while everyone agrees that the School Board needs to take action to address the debt, it’s a little difficult to take them too seriously in the face of the administration raises.

Secondly–and I say this without knowing exactly what punishments have been doled out to the students–when you’re trying to teach 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds to stand up for what they believe in, you shouldn’t be too surprised when they do. And, maybe think twice when leveling punishments against those young people.

Thirdly, cutting a program like Building Trades may not be the best way to save money, and the community may end up paying for it one way or another. This is a program that teaches students very practical skills, ones which will serve them immediately upon graduation. A lot of these students are not necessarily college bound, and Building Trades may be the best hope they have for a solid future. Take away Building Trades and we may be seeing an increase in unemployment and an increase in the Dropout Rate, and the community will pay for both of these.

I’m hoping cooler heads prevail over the next week, the School Board will sit down with them, and the “Save Dave” group will have a productive meeting with the Board. If they don’t, Ottawa, Illinois will be the loser.