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Thursday, December 25, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 3/22/2014

COMMENTARY

Ohio schools snowed under by a political calamity

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST
Johanek Johanek
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What a calamity. Only Ohio lawmakers could turn a punishing winter into a political issue. But they play in a separate universe from the rest of the state.

Ohioans know that this winter’s harsh weather — insufferable even by Buckeye standards — was an anomaly, not an apocalypse. They figured state lawmakers knew that too.

All lawmakers had to do was come up with a one-time solution to a one-time problem: Extreme weather made most Ohio school districts miss more days than the five “calamity days” allowed by state law.

Many also exceeded the additional four contingency days schools plan ahead for, to use as needed. Districts wanted lawmakers to make an exception to the snow day rules in 2014.

They asked for a few extra calamity days that wouldn’t have to be made up because of the unrelenting winter. Educators were already behind, adjusting schedules, revising lesson plans, coordinating test preparation objectives, and otherwise trying to compensate for lost classroom time.

Few expected that relatively straightforward legislation, granting extra calamity days to Ohio districts, would drag on for months. This wasn’t rocket science. Unusual weather required unusual measures.

Districts coping with double-digit snow days looked to the Statehouse for relief. Instead, they got a prolonged lecture that sounded a lot like teacher-bashing.

The Republican-dominated legislature seized the opportunity to inject politics into a discussion of snow, ice, frigid temperatures, and school closings. Emergency action morphed into a forum on teacher accountability.

Extra snow days for schools became fodder for debate about lazy teachers cashing in on cushy union jobs with ample time off. State Rep. Lynn Wachtmann (R., Napoleon) suggested that teachers at least ought to come to work when classes are canceled.

“In the private sector, you don’t get paid if you don’t serve your customers,” he said, arguing against paying salaried teachers for snow days on which they didn’t work. He was adamant about the state getting its money’s worth and not “throwing away” public education funding on extra calamity days with no educational services rendered.

You might make a similar argument about throwing away taxpayer dollars on full-time salaries for state lawmakers who render part-time grandstanding at best.

Politicizing an extraordinarily severe winter by pinning it on teachers, painting them as snow-day opportunists, is beyond ridiculous. It displays legislative ignorance that is embarrassing.

Most teachers work their tails off in the classroom and on their own time planning lessons, helping struggling learners, grading tests, getting students the materials they need, and holding conferences. If anything, snow days give teachers a chance to catch up on a nonstop schedule of teaching, testing, evaluating, and creating.

State lawmakers with teaching backgrounds — state Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green) and Rep. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) — should give their colleagues an earful about how difficult it is to be an effective teacher. Those who equate teachers with assembly line workers who produce daily quotas should go back to school for a review of reality.

Mr. Wachtmann might learn that students aren’t widgets, and teachers aren’t serving customers. They’re molding children into productive members of society.

He might learn that students are not business commodities, but kids bracing for harrowing bus rides in wintry conditions to learn lessons tailored to individual learners by professional educators. Expanding teacher development days or extending the school year are subjects worthy of further discussion.

But the calamity day issue before the legislature was about protecting kids first, when extreme weather strikes, and worrying about satisfying the required academic calendar second. This winter overwhelmed school districts with closings.

Blizzards and bone-chilling cold repeatedly conspired to raise unacceptable risks for school buses carrying precious cargo. Schools repeatedly opted for better-safe-than-sorry measures.

That caused a conundrum for schools trying to comply with state regulations on missed school days while keeping students out of danger. Districts needed a break, not tired rhetoric about greedy teachers and adversarial unions.

But they got a drawn-out, partisan-inflated calamity.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact Blade columnist Marilou Johanek at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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