The students at Montclair High School got a sobering civics lesson this past week when Governor Chris Christie showed up to talk about his proposed budget cuts to school districts across the state, including Montclair—my home town, which is taking a huge hit.
The Montclair Public Schools say they plan to lay off 82 teachers because of Christie’s cuts. However, the local teachers’ union in town has stepped up and done the right thing by agreeing to a salary freeze for the highest paid teachers in order to protect many of the jobs of younger teachers at the bottom of the pay scale.
I know the Montclair Public Schools very well. My two youngest children are enrolled there and I’ve given the commencement speech at Montclair High School twice, including last June. Montclair students are engaged, involved and express their point of view, which is exactly what happened when the governor came to town. Many students gathered in the hallways to protest the governor’s visit and held up signs that said; “Dear Christie, I would quote Shakespeare but my teacher was cut.”
It’s great to see such civic involvement, and the students who Christie addressed in Mr. William Wingren’s class posed difficult and challenging questions to the governor. To his credit, Christie took the criticism and questions head on. There was no filter, no staging, no handlers—just the governor and a group of frustrated, angry and a bit misinformed students, as well as teachers and administrators, who have targeted Christie as the enemy. I understand their anger toward the governor. The problem is, they are not seeing the bigger picture.
Part of the civics lesson we need to understand is that the state budget has to be balanced by June 30. It is in the Constitution. There is an $11 billion budget gap in a $30 billion budget, and it is the governor’s job to try to make up the difference and fill that hole. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating. I’m not thrilled that Chris Christie is calling for massive cuts in state aid to municipalities and school districts. As a parent of kids in the public schools, how could I be happy that some teachers are going to be laid off, as well as valuable teacher’s aides and that class sizes are likely to get larger? How could any parent be happy that valued and important classes may be canceled and extra curricular activities are on the chopping block?
But government can’t always be about making people happy. In this case it is about finally having a chief executive who is trying to do what’s right, as opposed to what’s popular. Chris Christie said that once he proposed this budget, his popularity would drop. He was right, because recent polls have shown Christie’s approval rating is now in the low 40s.
But popularity isn’t the issue, leadership is. And the civics lesson that my neighbors in Montclair need is that in government (and in fact in life) it often comes down to very difficult and painful choices. You can’t have everything you want without paying for it.
Holding up posters with slogans like; “We respectfully disagree with your disregard to education” will get you media attention, because they are witty and fun. But slogans don’t solve budget gaps of $11 billion. I’m proud of my hometown teachers for stepping up and freezing salaries for their higher paid colleagues, as well as school administrators in order to save teaching jobs and hopefully some programs. No, it won’t be enough to close the gap or to make up for all the state aid cuts, but it’s an impressive and encouraging compromise.
Isn’t that civics? Isn’t that life, compromise, negotiation, give and take? Doing more with less? Sacrificing? And sometimes having to take actions that you know will be unpopular.
Governor Chris Christie didn’t come to Montclair to get applause. He came because he knew it was important and he wanted to recognize the tough decisions made by the teachers union and school administrators. Afterwards, many, including Dennis Murray, Montclair’s local union president, said that some educators weren’t happy that Chris Christie even showed up at the high school. But that’s the governor’s job, to face the music and the criticism. To stand up and take on the questions, particularly from angry and frustrated students who want what they want. Oh, and by the way, if Montclair or every public school district in the state were to get what it wanted, our property taxes would be even higher. And wouldn’t that make the student’s parents really happy?
Like I said, civics, and in fact life, really comes down to a series of difficult, painful and often very unpopular choices.