I had been the superintendent of schools in Lenox, Massachusetts for about seven years when Prop 2 ½ passed in 1980. Proposition 2 ½ limited local property tax levies and forced us to cut our school budget by 20%. When I came to the school, it was known for having the lowest costs per pupil in the county and didn’t have a great reputation. The school committee had hired me with a clear mandate to improve things, and I had felt we were on the right track. Now, we were going to have to go backwards. I was devastated.
Because school budgets usually reflect about 80% for staff salaries, the only way we could address the loss of revenue was by laying off about 15% of the staff. Deciding who would be targeted for layoffs was very difficult.
I wanted to keep the better teachers, but the school committee opted to base layoffs on a strict seniority rule. It was certainly less complicated but it was still emotionally draining. Lenox was a small school district; about 1000 students in 4 small elementary schools and a junior-senior high school. We let go of ten or so very promising teachers, including some I had recruited away from stable jobs in other school systems.
Lenox is small, so I saw these people around. It was a terrible time. Over several months, I lost about 25 pounds. I had trouble sleeping, and experienced considerable digestive distress. I was 44, but so emotionally exhausted I felt 100 sometimes.
In the spring, hoping to escape Prop 2 ½, I applied for a superintendent position in another state. When their school board chair called me to say they had hired someone else, he said, “You looked very tired.” Sometimes, sitting in front of the Celtics or Red Sox with my second vodka, I would think about the architects and supporters of Proposition 2 ½ and wonder what was wrong with people, and also wonder if and when I would emerge from this funk.
I applied for a few more jobs. Eventually, I just gave up and decided to stick around. I ended up being glad I did. The state was able to increase its support for public schools so we were able to restore some of the Prop 2 ½ cuts. And, as the reputation of the schools improved, the real estate prices went up which meant a stronger tax base. I stayed in Lenox until my retirement in 2000, my funk went away, and I left the Lenox schools in good shape.
I know that I was lucky. I know that wealthier school systems in Massachusetts are thriving and poor ones are not, and that most communities have never gotten a chance, much less a second one, to create a good public school. But to be honest, I don’t agonize over the state of public education that much anymore. I gave it what I had, and now, I like to fish. Even though getting old is hard, sometimes it’s easier to be 80 than 40.