San Marino Unified School District discussed plans to terminate employees in a March 10 board meeting. (Photo by Austin Nguyen)
San Marino High School

Opinion: Amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, an open letter to SMUSD

San Marino Unified School District students received confirmation of the district’s $2.6 million deficit and news of the actions to accommodate for this financial state. These plans include laying off the equivalent of 31 full-time employee positions across departments like English and science, announced in a March 10 district board meeting. Below is one student’s response to the changes:

 

Dear Dr. Wilson and Members of the San Marino Board of Education,

 

During this past week at home in quarantine, I wanted to write. I wanted to share my thoughts on everything that I had time for, from the coronavirus to the Celeste-Ng-inspired Hulu series “Little Fires Everywhere.” I wanted to publish pieces on the overlooked music of the past two weeks and the LGBTQ+ struggles in “Pose” that queer persons still have to endure today despite the over 20 year difference between the TV show and modern reality. 

But I’ve finished this week without creating a single document or typing a new word, and as easy as it is to blame this lack of productivity on the ennui of life locked up indoors, I believe the cause is more subtle and profound:

That the very people who are supposed to protect and support the student have made me, my voice, feel worthless.

These words can (and probably will) be dismissed as melodramatic, found guilty of being the impulsive reaction of an emotional student, but the truth is inherently a spectacle; it suffocates us with the grasp of reality and leaves no room for false perceptions of what we want to see.

The delegitimization of the student voice is a severe charge, and one that should not be based on specious flukes, but the facts remain these: Grace Davis, the student representative on the school board, was the only member to have voted against the proposed resolutions for the district’s financial crisis. Walkouts were scheduled time and time again before school was canceled as a result of the coronavirus.

A petition with over 1,300 signatures in solidarity with a teacher who is being laid off, fired, or whatever words you want to use to mince a tragedy. If the district’s resolutions were in alignment with the wishes of the student body, none of the aforementioned events would have occurred; but students have taken (and will continue to take) action in spite of and due to the administration’s seemingly remiss behavior.

Members of the board have recently attempted to take student perspectives into account through discussions with select students within the Visual and Performing Arts department, though saving face seems to be the only function of these meetings. Negligible progress has been made, and the results that these meetings do yield merely benefit the administration.

Aforementioned students have advised against the very walkout that they created in the name of diplomatic footing on behalf of the administration — an attempt to placate frustration without offering true resolution — and as such, the function of the student is further reduced to that of ornamentation rather than instrumentation.

I understand that there are more pressing, national matters at hand, but upon closer inspection, the two crises are similar — specifically, in the fact that the ideal reaction to both the coronavirus and the district’s financial emergency is a three-pronged plan. Again, I say “emergency” not for sensationalism, but because this situation has, in fact, shocked students and warranted immediate action from both teachers and students.

Believe me when I say that I appreciate what the administration has done thus far when an unprecedented event is shaking the education system and government to its core — the preparatory courses on how to conduct online courses, the near-daily email updates explaining future plans, the inter-district meetings ensuring San Marino does not fall behind as a whole.

The last words the SMUSD needs to hear right now are those of criticism, yet where was this same preparation, transparency, and communication when it came to the blindsiding decision to cut 31 full-time-employee positions?

Students have a right to know about any changes to the education that they receive, that they make possible through their attendance and the consequent revenue generated; but at the same time, we’re more than names on a spreadsheet for a check to cash, and teachers are more than the cost of their salary and benefits.

The fact that both of these parties were shut out from the discussion until the very last minute, when their voice is rendered near useless and the stones are already in place, is not just antithetical of these perspectives; whether inadvertent or intentional, it is negligent at best and malignant at worst.

On multiple occasions, when the Western Association of Schools and College visited SMUSD for the accreditation process and asked the district what made San Marino unique, “community” was the answer that parents, board members, and the high administration gave. Now, in this financial crisis, “community” has given out while showing where the bonds are the strongest — between students and teachers and the teachers themselves.

This is not, in any shape or form, meant to create an “us vs. them” situation, to widen a chasm between the teachers/students and the administration/school board that has already been exacerbated by the physical separation of quarantine. Of course, the economic turmoil of SMUSD was not brought on solely by its current member, but the choice (and it truly was a choice) to keep students and faculty in the dark, when significant changes are discussed for the SMUSD, can no longer be made.

It is detrimental not only to the synchronicity within the district and schools, but to the relationship between the student body and administration, which would have been better off had prior knowledge been possessed (damage control is never equivalent to prevention).

With nothing to do in quarantine, I’ve had plenty of time to think — about the past, the present, but most importantly, the future; it’s about time the district does the same. After all, we cannot live solely in the present at the expense of the future. The former invariably leads to the latter, and they must be viewed in contiguity.

Toni Morrison, in her book “The Source of Self-Regard,” explained the discrepancies between our ability to imagine the past and future, the former infinite and the latter stifled. The coronavirus has proven that the SMUSD is capable of applause-worthy foresight. I can only hope that the future they envision is one where students and teachers truly have a seat at the table.

 

Sincerely,

Austin Nguyen