How can I work without crayons, paints and papers?" asks a first-grader in a letter to Arlington County Board Chairman Stephen H. Detwiler. "Please give us some money."
A fifth-grader, writing to Detwiler about proposed cuts in the school budget, declares: "I am planning to become an actress/singer when I grow up, and cutting drama and music may ruin my career."
And a letter from a sixth-grader complains: "We have teachers here who work hard and deserve better than what they get. . . . It's so hard to get a decent education, so when you come across a good teacher and modern textbooks, it's stupid to let all that go. . . . If you take our school's money, you're cutting a child's chance of getting a good job when they become older."
The letters are among at least 138 received by County Board members Dorothy T. Grotos, Walter L. Frankland and Detwiler. They were all from Ashlawn Elementary School students and arrived April 13, two weeks before the County Board voted to cut $1.9 million from the school board's budget request.
Teachers at Ashlawn said they discussed the pending cuts with their students and asked them if they wanted to write the letters. They said they told the students the letter writing was voluntary.
Students were required to have their parents' permission before the letters were forwarded to the county, teachers said. In some cases, parents cosigned the letters. Of the 16 classes at Ashlawn, 15 conducted the letter-writing campaign as part of civics and creative writing lessons. The 16th class sent a petition to the County Board protesting budget cuts, and that, too, was said to be a voluntary assignment.
Even so, the letters have brought angry responses from some County Board members, who contend the students were used as pawns for the political gain of teachers miffed over school budget cuts and salary increases that were less that the teachers had sought.
The school board asked its staff to review the incident.
Although only the three Republican members of the County Board received letters from the Ashlawn students, all five board members criticized the move, calling it "inappropriate."
"It seemed like (teachers) were saying, 'We'll have a creative writing lesson about the evil County Board members . . . .'" Grotos remarked. "It was a disservice to the children . . . playing on their emotions and doing a lot of it for political reasons."
Frankland added: "It was unethical and highly unprofessional."
Detwiler said: "It is inappropriate for any public employe group to use their position to try to lobby for their own interests."
Detwiler recently responded to several of the student letters. In one letter he wrote to a sixth grade student, Detwiler said. "In Arlington County, your teachers are paid more money than teachers in any other school system in the whole country. That's okay, because I believe we should have the best teachers. Unfortunately, your teachers are very selfish. They are thinking only about themselves, and not about the elderly grandparents in Arlington who cannot afford to live here because they can no longer afford to pay the high amount of taxes that are demanded of them. . . . I know you must care about these people, too."
The Arlington Education Association, which represents most of the county's 1,074 teachers, denied that Arlington teachers are the highest paid in the nation. They also criticized Detwiler's responses, saying they showed "misinformation or ignorance. At worst, they represent calculated malice towards schools and their supporters."
The school budget approved by the County Board April 25 was $1.9 million less than the schools requested but nearly $1.5 million more than the county board originally said it would be willing to fund. The final budget contained a maximum 7 percent salary increase for teachers, who had sought the equivalent of a 10 percent increase.
At its meeting tonight, the school board will begin examining where it will cut to bridge the gap between the funds it asked for and those it got.
Marjorie McCreery, AEA executive director, said the association did not suggest the letter-writing project, but added that she had no objections to is.
"Kids . . . have a legitimate right to do that," McCreery said. "We're not talking about candidacies or partisanship, but citizen consumers of county services expressing concern about the continuation of those services at a reduced level."
McCreery said the project was an offshoot of an association suggestion that teachers take down from their rooms all items they personally paid for to demonstrate "that teachers contribute a lot more than teaching time and energy to the classroom."
At Ashlawn, according to three teachers there, the faculty decided it would be less disruptive if they left the materials intact, and instead discussed how the budget cuts were determined and how they would affect the children.
The dispute over the letters, McCreery said, will have no effect on association plans to discuss at its meeting Monday possible job actions as a result of the budget cuts.
McCreery said teachers may want to consider a "work-to-the-rule" action, which would eliminate many extracurricular activities sponsored by teachers, or petitioning for a recall election of some County Board members.
"We are wide open as to what we may do (legally)," she said.
Fairfax County, Alexandria and Arlington have similar policies prohibiting distribution of political, commercial, profit-making or religious materials on school grounds. But none has a formal policy covering such letter-writing incidents, and Arlington officials said any ban on such assignments would raise First Amendment questions.
"This is very, very touchy in terms of First Amendment freedom of expression," said Acting Superintendent J. Boyd Webb. "There's no way a superintendent can say. 'You can't write this or that.' It's the method used here to do it that we're concerned about."
At Ashlawn, teachers emphasized that none of the students was forced to write the letters, and teachers said they even forwarded a letter from one student that supported the budget cuts.
"We did not mention salary at all (in the class)," said one teacher, who asked not to be identified. "It was strictly on how it would affect the children. The lesson was on how you work with your local government to make your feelings known. It was intended to be a positive approach to get the children involved (in governmental issues affecting them). There was no malice intended. . . .
"If we wrote praising them or asking that the sidewalk be repaired, I don't think they would have been upset."
Ashlawn Principal Camay Murphy declined to comment on the issue. But Patricia Zug, one of several parents who have been supportive of the teachers, remarked, "I don't think there's anything wrong with the kids writing letters. It affects them more than anyone, so why shouldn't they write letters?"