Zen Budgeting Through the COVID-19 Pandemic

Business people say when they are stabbing a friend in the back, “It’s not personal. It’s just business.” It’s always personal. The COVID-19 pandemic just makes it that much more obvious.

At ICS, we are always struggling to keep it personal, especially when we are dealing with ending a relationship with someone who has been a member of our team. For many years, I was always the person who delivered the news. I am always sorry when it doesn’t work out. I always say that.

Already in the summer of 2019, we knew that the 2020-21 budget process would be difficult. It would be personal. 

Our schools are organized around the mission of fully integrating students living with emotional challenges and other disabilities. More than one-third of our students are classified for special education.

In the summer, we knew that our efforts to staff our classrooms with a teacher certified both in the course content and special education supported by a teacher assistant was lagging in middle and high school grades. Although we were evolving a long-term strategy to address this challenge, a dramatic increase in compensation for dually certified teachers which would, we hoped, stimulate teacher motivation to obtain the second certification, this would take time to bear fruit. In the meantime, a second, short-term prong would require us to replace teacher assistants in many core classes with SPED-certified co-teachers. This second prong would come at a substantial cost and would require us short-term to reduce the number of teacher assistants. This would be wrenching.

 By announcing this prospect at the Future of ICS luncheon in October, we hoped to communicate the urgency of moving toward a teaching credential to our TAs.

We know that our long-term success, academically and economically, depends on our human resource strategy of moving teacher assistants and other ancillary instructional personnel toward full accreditation as dually-certified teachers. In evaluating our instructional personnel, we needed to be paying attention both to short-term instructional results (which have a significant impact in the charter school renewal process) and to each person’s likely long-term contribution to our schools. We had to ask not just who will be the best teacher next September, but also who is most likely be the most valuable teacher in five or ten years. 

We met with small groups of staff to make sure that they understood that their chances of having jobs for next year might depend on the progress which they were making this year toward teacher certification.

And then COVID-19 hit. As the economic impact on New York State was recognized, the governor announced stark projections. He anticipated revenue falling 10-15%. He declared his intention to maintain a balanced budget. As a result, we could anticipate a comparable reduction in state spending, including education. 

Facing this, we began immediately to prepare an austerity budget. There was push back. Aren’t we being too pessimistic? Maybe COVID-19 won’t be so bad. Maybe education won’t be affected. 

No one likes budget cuts. They are always painful. This was shaping up to be our most painful budget.

Maybe. But for us, the consequences of running out of money in the middle of the school year could mean the shutdown of our schools. Planning for survival became a priority.

How do we cut 10-15% from a budget which was already going to involve considerable pain? 

We considered back-pedaling from efforts to upgrade special education delivery in our schools. We considered backpedaling from the teacher pathway program which we considered crucial to our long-term operational success. We concluded that we were better off handling the immediate crisis without jeopardizing the future.

We could not risk cutting teacher salaries. Not just because they work really hard and we love them. Not just because they are our most valuable resource. We exist in a highly competitive job market. The NYC Department of Education offers attractions with which we cannot compete, in particular an excellent pension. We cannot fail to compete on salaries and hope to keep our teachers.

We could risk cuts in non-direct-service personnel. We could reduce the full-time management and administrative staff to an 80% workweek. We could limit raises for direct-service staff other than teachers. We could reduce or suspend entirely our employer’s 401(k) match. 

We were still far short of a balanced budget. We could increase class size from 18 to 20. Now the gap was beginning to close. 

Fortunately, it has not been all bad news. We have been approved for a $3.5 million loan through the Small Business Administration, part of the federal CARES response to COVID-19. We will not know for several months how much of that loan will be forgiven. And there is hope that NYS will receive $164 million of Governors Emergency Education Relief funding. The New York Charter Schools Association is hopeful that this will obviate the need for further cuts in state education funding and that our funding will remain at our current levels. 

But we still need to face the critical choices inherent in the budget process. COVID-19 makes these more difficult, much more personal. 

Now with depression levels of unemployment, anyone laid off will have an exceptionally difficult time finding another job. Should we ask all TAs to accept a reduced workweek in order to avoid lay-offs? There is a lot of emotional energy in favor of doing that. We recognize that the special education staffing challenge will likely not be resolved in a year. We are facing the same prospective reductions in the TA staff a year from now. And will we irreparably damage the morale and security of all TA’s if cut all in order to save more people from separation? 

So, we will answer this question, one person at a time. We will make personal decisions that take in all the complicated guesses at what that person’s value to ICS will be in five years, in ten years. We will not substitute a faceless rubric. We decided that, although we will use rubrics to sharpen our thinking, to challenge our judgments.

Zen practice asks to hold simultaneously the One Body and Myriad thing.

The One Body: We are a whole as ICS, an organism on which all parts depend, — parents and students for safety and learning, teachers and staff for fulfillment and livelihood. 

The Myriad Things: Every blade of grass is unique. Every blade. Every student. Every staff member. Every parent.

We need to hold both simultaneously. That is Zen. We cannot mow the lawn without cutting the blades of grass. 

How do we hold both?

Why don’t we want to hold both?

Because it’s uncomfortable. It is anxiety-provoking. Choosing to focus on one aspect or another seems to relieve tension. Unfortunately, the one-sided view, the one-sided action, leads to suffering.

We practice on our cushions to hold the tension. Breathing through it, we build our capacity to hold the tension in our lives. At this moment, through the budget process. 

Moment after moment.

Breathing in tension and anxiety, breathing out peace.

The One Body and the Myriad Blades of Grass.

It’s business. And it’s very personal.