The conversations were never light, though we allowed ourselves to laugh together, leaning in to listen as we did the hard work. It was a “Budget Listening Session” and I put the title in quotation marks because it is not my own; every school will host a similar event sometime in December or January, using the district’s presentation to share budget facts with our school communities before diving in to an activity that asks us to prioritize spending in the event we see a gap between our projected expenditures and 2019-2020 revenue. I was the evening’s host, but not its master.
Knowing how challenging it can be to talk about big issues like budget, particularly when our control over the topic is limited and the impact on our work is profound, I decided early on to enlist some of the best voices I know: students.
I went to our National Honor Society, which at my school does so much service for our students, parents, and school community, and asked if a half dozen or so would join me on the night to be table leaders for our budget activity. I met with them the day before, outlining the information I’d be sharing and giving them a heads up about what we’d be doing. They listened thoughtfully, asked good questions, and said they were happy to have their voices heard.
On the night parents and staff members arrived, curious and (unless I’m projecting) a little nervous. I did my best to share the rows of statistics, the history, and the process of budgeting in Oregon, and then introduced the activity.
We divided into tables, I handed out the materials, and they got to work.
Three things struck me as I walked from table to table listening and answering questions.
First, the students, staff, and parents all seemed comfortable talking to one another. They listened, considered what others had said, and worked together to look at the budget at hand. My student table leaders allowed all voices to be heard, including my staff members whose understanding surpassed most in the room, and my parents, both those who had been through lean budget times and those for whom this was the first discussion of this kind they’d had outside their kitchen table.
Next, everyone cared so much, and for how the suggestions they were making impacted everyone. Students, some of whom will have graduated before next year’s budget is approved by the state, talked about choices from a point of view that was anything but checked out. They cared deeply, both for their school and for their peers, and as I heard them speak, I could tell that their perspective extended to include those children not yet in school. One teacher of seniors went out of his way to emphasize the importance of early childhood education. One parent talked with her table about the budget’s impact on everyone in the state.
Finally, they recognized the budget box we were working within, but didn’t accept staying there entirely. Yes, they understood the limits an individual, school, or even district could have on the process, and they articulated the importance of each person there had in making their voice heard. They imagined school and community partnerships to help bridge some gaps. They talked about political action they might take to help lawmakers see how much this matters. They connected with one another over a difficult conversation, and left, I believe more bonded than they’d been coming in.
I left with a hope in our future, inspired by those students who care, imagine, and will solve problems in ways few of us can even imagine. I left with resolve, knowing that no one needs to be a passive member of our society, but we all can make a difference if we work together to be heard. And I left with appreciation for the school community I have the privilege to be a part of. These parents, students, and staff members inspired me more than I can say. It was an evening that none of us named, but all of us owned, together.