As the school year begins, the news has been full of stories about the staff shortages in public education. The press has been quick to identify the problem: lack of respect and fair compensation, and stressful working conditions are driving people away from what are arguably the most important jobs in our economy. It is time to acknowledge that strong public schools require a real investment in our employees.

Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) employees are doing the foundational work needed to make our county welcoming, safe, healthy and prosperous. They develop our children’s skills to prepare them for college and careers. They build communities in their schools and classrooms and teach children how to successfully navigate social relationships. They inspire their students to seek to achieve their potential as future citizens.

For decades, the excellence of MCPS has made this area a major draw for families and for businesses. Our schools are consistently ranked among the best in the nation.

However, there have been longstanding challenges to that success. Staff have been overburdened by ever-increasing demands to fulfill additional duties. Standardized testing and standardized curricula have increasingly taken the joy out of teaching and learning. Meanwhile educators, support personnel and administrators have coped with a lack of resources to meet the growing needs of our students.

All these problems have been exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, increased school violence and destructive political rhetoric.

As a result, by the end of the school year in June, a record number of Montgomery County’s public school employees had retired or resigned. In addition to the normal retirements and relocations, we saw many more dedicated people leaving the school system entirely in search of better pay and working conditions. The morale of those who remain in the work is lower than we can ever recall.

Meanwhile, schools of education across the country are experiencing drastic decreases in enrollment so that the pipeline of new educators is drying up. Competition for skilled teachers, support staff and administrators is fierce among local school systems as they continue to scramble to fill open positions.

And while those working on the front lines in education struggle to do their jobs in this crisis, our county’s children are the ones who suffer the most.

There has been a tendency of many to say that the staffing shortages are a national problem, as if solutions are out of our control. Let us be clear: there will not be a national solution to staffing shortages in public education. School funding overwhelmingly comes from local taxes, and school systems largely operate on their own. We who live in Montgomery County must be willing to pay what it takes to get highly skilled, dedicated professionals to take on the demanding work of educating our children. New money is coming from the state through the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, but that law requires the county to step up as well.

Solutions must also come from the Board of Education. This year all three bargaining units– for teachers, support professionals and administrators—will have contract negotiations with MCPS. In addition to seeking competitive wages and benefits that will attract and retain talented employees, the unions will be seeking improved working conditions.

Staff need reasonable workloads that allow them to focus on giving their best to the children they serve — without shortchanging their own families or ruining their own physical and mental health. The constant blizzard of new initiatives and added responsibilities must cease. Those who work directly with children deserve greater professional respect for their judgement regarding how, when and what to teach. The over-testing and relentless pressure to produce data must give way to child-centered approaches to academic achievement. Professional growth opportunities need to be expanded and tailored to meet individuals’ needs and interests. Staff ratios need to be improved for all students, not only those receiving special services. And staffing levels must reflect the reality of what is required to keep buildings clean, safe and well-functioning.

In the end, what we as a county are willing to do to support the employees of MCPS will reveal how much we care about our children. The working conditions for our employees are the learning conditions for our students. Investment in our children’s education is an investment in the reputation and future of Montgomery County.

Pia Morrison is president of SEIU Local 500, Christine Handy is president of the Montgomery County Association of Administrators and Principals and Jennifer Martin is president of the Montgomery County Education Association.

***

Editor’s note: Bethesda Beat encourages readers to send us their thoughts about local topics we have covered for consideration as a letter to the editor or op-ed piece in our Saturday newsletter. Email them to editorial@bethesdamagazine.com. Here are our guidelines. We require a name and hometown for publication. We also require a phone number (not for publication) for us to verify who wrote the letter. Please provide a source for any facts in your letter that were not part of our coverage; if they can’t be verified, they likely will be omitted. We do not accept any submissions from a third party; it must come directly from the writer. We do not accept any pieces that have been published or submitted elsewhere.