by Tim Reed and Amanda Litvinov
Pam Mikkelson, middle school head secretary and ESP At Large on the Education Minnesota Governing Board recently attended a rally outside of a Mitt Romney fundraiser for high priced donors [ed note: pictured center above] held at a country club in Minnetonka Beach, Minnesota. Pam made a rousing speech [ed note: video at the end of this post] and took a few moments to speak to us after the event.
Under the Ryan budget, millionaires like Mitt Romney would pay far less in taxes than working families and even more of the burden would be shifted to the middle class. How would this affect families in your community?
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My community is middle-of-the-road middle class. We’re a little former resort town so we don’t have much business-based tax revenue and our city taxes are quite high, so there isn’t a lot of support on referendums or levies for our schools. We’ve struggled already with where the money is going to come from to support our schools, to support the needs of our city, and it would just place a heavy burden on what we need to make our community function. It’s kind of the same thing at the state level. Our taxes are high and we have families here who are working two, three jobs to make ends meet. And often single parent families or even dual income families are struggling. Raising taxes on us, on contributing members of society doing their best to make a life for their families, is hard when the big businesses that are raking in money aren’t paying their fair share. And the fact that families know that and struggle with that even adds to the burden.
As a school secretary, you’re the first person many students and parents meet when they head to school in the morning. As someone with a unique perspective on our education system and the struggles facing families in your community, what would you ask the presidential and vice presidential candidates to do this campaign season?
I would ask them to be more aware of what the actual middle-class family does and needs and has and doesn’t have. They need to actually witness and feel what these families are going through. We’re starting school next week and as a school secretary, I’m the person greeting the families that come to our door and say they don’t have money for school supplies, they don’t have money for lunch, what do I do with my child after school because I can’t afford after school care, how do I take care of my kids in this situation? It’s not just one or two families—it’s a lot of families. There are so many more people who are struggling making ends meet, but they’re the people who are also working hard to keep our country running. These aren’t people who can pay $50,000 dollars a plate—more than I or any of my friends ever make in a year—for a seat at the candidate’s table. I would ask the candidates to go out and talk to these people, and find out what the people of this country who are going to work to support you and be your advocates really need.
Getting candidates and elected leaders not only into classrooms but into schools is valuable. I’m a middle school secretary and my job has changed so much, and so has that of the support staff we have throughout the schools. Out custodial staff has been trimmed back so far that they can’t get done what they need to maintain the schools, so then we have problems with things falling apart or in need of repair. There’s no money to fix them, but no money for upkeep either. They need to step inside the buildings and gain that perspective and see what is happening. But they also need to see the very good that is happening, how these people are managing to do it because of their passion, but if they had the funding to do it how much greater it would be.
Mitt Romney recently went out of his way to say that education support professionals have no influence on student achievement. What do you see as the role of ESPs in students’ lives?
Some days the ESP probably has more involvement with actual student life than a teacher does. The secretary greets the family and the students, and the first person most of our students see is the bus driver, who is the caretaker of that kid making sure they get on the bus in the morning and making sure they get home safe. A lot of them call parents to let them know if their child was not at the bus stop that day. They are genuine caretakers. The custodians at school make sure they have what they need, find them in the hall and take care of them. We have paraeducators and support staff who work within the classroom that are the one-on-one connection with those kids. We have health aides who physically take care of a student if they’re sick and sometimes sit with them all day because a parent can’t get away from a job or they won’t get paid. There are the lunch ladies who make sure they get the food and our guidance office and main office make sure kids have food over the holidays to take home so they’re not having that proverbial orange lunch, that government cheese every day. It’s the personal connection, the direct attention that these people are giving them: making sure homework is done, making sure mom and dad know what is going on. The ESPs have a huge, huge role in students’ lives.
Mitt is welcome to come to my school and spend a few days here and just see how heavily we rely on our ESP staff to keep us connected to the needs of our students. So many students are in family situations that might not give them all they need and families in our communities rely on our schools to provide that. And our ESPs are that connection to our community too: Nearly 80 percent of ESPs across the country work and live in the same community. So they know the kids. They know them from church, from sporting events, from the park or the grocery store. It’s a definite strong, important connection.