With a 6-to-1 vote, my local agriculture education program was cut in half.
Despite emails, social media messages and public comments during a recent school board meeting, in a matter of seconds the local board of education passed a motion that cut one agriculture educator, all middle school programs and all ag construction classes. It felt like a gut punch. I was upset and angry. Then, as I turned around and saw the eyes of students, dressed their FFA blue and gold, welling up with tears, I felt it. They felt it. Loss.
Make no mistake: This was not an issue of an agriculture education program decline or a lack of funding due to COVID-19, as presented by the school administration. In fact, the agriculture education program, thanks to a robust middle school program — 92 students in just the eighth grade alone — was gaining ag class enrollments, up close to 20 students in one year, with class totals of 170 students.
No, this was about a board of education that mismanaged funds starting back in 2017-18, when they paid out a superintendent and then made raises to teachers with money they didn’t have — which led to deficit spending for two years. Even the district’s CFO warned back then that if they made these raises, the district would be broke. And that is where we are. In fact, the school had to borrow money to make payroll. So, they were forced to make financial cuts. They targeted education programs, not extracurricular ones.
In the short notice of one week, a group gathered information, made calls and presented facts. Parents, students and friends of the program offered options for cuts that did not impact student education. Still, the board had its mind made up. And with a swift tap of the gavel, a large part of the agriculture education program was gone.
Don’t be us
So, in an effort to learn from our situation, I thought of a few things other communities should do to ensure that agriculture is not on the chopping block when schools face financial difficulties.
Get involved. Our school board lost its agriculture roots. Make sure you have at least the majority of members from an agriculture background. I’d also advise having one school board member with a financial background — farmers offer both skill sets. Consider running for your local school board.
Attend school board meetings. These volunteers are making decisions on how to spend your tax dollars. They are discussing what is best for the future of your community. You should be informed. I admit, I was not. Most school board meetings are virtual these days, so tune in. But if they are in-person, show up.
Support agriculture education. Join your local FFA Alumni or Friends of the FFA organization. As a group, start brainstorming ways to boost student enrollment, and garner community and industry support. Volunteer to help with contest teams or class presentations. Encourage those outside of agriculture to take a class. Talk to your school principals and counselors about the importance of these classes. Tell them to promote them in the schedule. I still believe every student should be required to take an ag education class, so they know where their food, clothing and fuel comes from. Put the spotlight on agriculture education. You may be one of the few who do.
What burns me
So often during our school board meeting, board members would speak on how the “community does not support the school,” pointing to the fact that the rural contingent does not vote in tax increases. What they fail to realize is that it was the agriculture community that built this community, this school.
Farmers and ranchers founded, well, all communities. Before there were cities, there were farms. So, farmers have been supporting schools long before their urban counterparts moved in. For generations, their family tax dollars have gone to building new schools and new programs.
It befuddles me how transitional communities, like mine, right on the cusp of urban sprawl, do not understand that the agriculture community is here to stay. Farmers and ranchers are not like those in the city who move in and out on a regular basis. Local school boards are often far removed from agriculture and truly do not understand its role and legacy.
Making sure the rural base is heard, represented and provided for will go a long way in building confidence in a district. If a local school board wants agriculture’s support, it should think and act fiscally responsible. Only then will we trust you with more.
It was heartbreaking to see these students dejected by a school board. The loss was so deep. It was a trusted advisor, a favorite class, a fun contest team. The one thing I know — they will come out the other side stronger. Agriculture education taught them how. It is our job to help them in their journey by serving, being involved, supporting and just showing up to advocate with them. Our future depends on it.