Tough times hit every area in life

Our Corner

At a chamber of commerce breakfast meeting a couple of weeks ago Green River Community College business instructor Jeff Perlot asked those in attendance for recession jokes to lighten the mood.

Many in the room are small business owners who are struggling to stay afloat during this trying economic situation.

The winner was, and I’m not quoting this directly, “You know you’re in a recession when the young man behind the counter at McDonald’s asks if you’d like to downsize your meal.”

You have to admit after a decade of “supersizing” not only our meals, but our homes and cars, it was funny.

Our own Courier-Herald advertising maven, Martha Boston came up with, “You know you’re in a recession when the Mariners can get Ken Griffey Jr. for $2 million.”

Also worth a snicker.

I can’t recall the others, but there were some good ones that provided a few chuckles before the topic became serious.

In reality, these are not laughing times for many.

In the past several weeks, I can’t tell you how many friends or acquaintances I’ve talked with who have let me know they are no longer working. Some by choice, but many more because their company is cutting back.

I read the headlines. I know Boeing is letting go numbers that I can’t fathom. The ever-popular Microsoft is handing out pink slips.

In smaller communities like ours, it hits close to home. These folks are not just statistics or numbers that we read about in larger newspapers or hear on the evening news. These are people we know. They are our neighbors or family members. They are friends we gather with at church or sit next to on the bench at our kids’ soccer games.

When Enumclaw’s Helac reduces its workforce, that’s John Doe. He lives in Buckley or Bonney Lake or Sumner. He goes to The Summit Church. His son might go to college at Eastern, along with a neighbor’s daughter. His wife is in my poetry group. She hasn’t been for a while. I heard she’s been sick. What will they do without insurance?

For those of us in the newsroom, and I’m sure at other places of business, it’s been our colleagues and we can only wonder if we are next.

As many will read in today’s newspaper now it’s our teachers or those who support them.

The White River School District is currently ahead of the curve, but is not alone. In the coming weeks, as more area school districts face tighter budgets and declining student populations, there will likely be more. It seems eons ago there was a “teacher shortage” and people were flocking to universities to get their degrees to fill vacancies created by a retiring workforce or those who left the field for greener pastures.

Local school districts have been facing budget cuts for some time now. They’ve gone virtually unnoticed because teachers have retired and not been replaced, or they’ve been asked to fill gaps in areas or at grade levels they wouldn’t usually teach.

The dollar figures are too great to be made up by saving copy paper or turning off the lights when you leave the building. The numbers are in the millions.

The math can be complicated, but with 85 percent of most school districts’ budgets tied up in personnel, salaries and benefits, with very few teachers left of retirement age, and the student portion of the student-teacher ratio on the decline, the answers seem pretty obvious.

Hard to swallow, perhaps, but fairly clear.

There were no words to describe the reality when it hit the White River School board of directors as the announcement became formal. The silence and heavy sighs hung in the air as sadness.

They are people. They have value.

I can’t imagine making those decisions, especially in these times for the reasons that these decisions have to be made today.

And harder yet, I can’t begin to know how difficult those decisions must be for local school leaders, chief executive officers or small-business owners, who, in this tight-knit community, know those people as friends and neighbors, too.