Sunday, December 1, 2013

Central School District Negotiations Battle: Sunlight is the Best Disinfectant

By Ben Gorman,  CEA President, teacher at CHS

Independence and Monmouth are small enough communities that rumors can spark, catch fire, and spread. It’s important that we have some facts laid out clearly for all community members to check out for themselves before people get the wrong ideas about what is going on with our school district.

  • Fact 1: 
First of all, in case you haven’t heard, our contract negotiations have broken down. This means that we will soon go into mediation. It is the hope of the CEA that things can be resolved during that time, but that will require some movement by the school board.

  •  Fact 2: 
The school district has more money than it has in years past. You may have seen the article in the Itemizer in which our superintendent mentioned a reduction in funding. This, I presume, is not deception but a different understanding of a reduction in funds. The predictions for increased funding are quite high. However, the superintendent is skeptical that all that money will come in if other districts also have increased enrollment. Regardless, it will be more money than we had last year. In my book, that’s an increase in funding. He works with the numbers on a day to day basis, so to him it looks like a reduction from his expectations. I get that. But compared to last year’s funding, it’s more. I call that an increase.

  • Fact 3: 
When the idea of right-sizing (i.e. closing Henry Hill and consolidating the elementary school populations) was proposed, our school board and the district office staff came to the teachers and asked for our help. They knew they would not have the community’s support if they were battling the teachers at the same time. They assured us that right-sizing would lead to two things: increases in pay for teachers and increases in full time employment (FTE) which would lead to reduced class sizes for our kids. At that time, they went before the community and said, in no uncertain terms, that teachers had taken hits for years and deserved to be fairly compensated, and that we needed to increase our FTE in order to reduce our class sizes. Those were both priorities for the teachers of Central School District, and we appreciated the district’s emphasis on sustainable salary increases and increases to FTE.

  • Fact 4: 
The school district’s initial offer was so low that, adjusted for inflation, it would have been a pay cut for many of our teachers. The teachers (the CEA) offered to reduce our demands if the school district would promise to increase FTE as they said they would. They refused.

  • Fact 5: 
Teachers also wanted to increase the length of the school year to make up for years where days were cut. We recognize that one of the most important ways to improve student performance and close the achievement gap is to increase the length of the school year. We offered to increase the length of the school year with the caveat that the increased time would be devoted to student instruction. The district refused this offer as well.

  • Fact 6: 
I’ve already heard about one false rumor making its way around town. Someone has been saying that the hang-up in negotiations comes from teachers wanting gym memberships. I’m certain this is a product of the telephone game gone awry, but it is categorically untrue. Going into this negotiation, many teachers and classified staff were upset about that fact that a select few teachers and community members have been given access to high quality work-out equipment in the high school’s weight room, while the rest of us do not have access. Similarly, some teachers are granted free access to sporting events, concerts, plays, etc., while others are not. In an effort to address this inequity, we proposed language which is similar to that found in other districts which would grant teachers access to these school events so they could: cheer on former students; provide some added supervision; and, because many would bring family members, actually increase attendance at these events. The district said that they considered this a worthy goal, but they were hesitant to put it into the teachers’ contract since the same thing should be afforded to the classified staff, and they would remedy it with a board policy. We thought that was a fine idea, and we told them we would remove it from our proposal as soon as the board put such a policy in place. The board has met a half a dozen times since the beginning of negotiations, and had yet to take care of this. As far as we can tell, the only action taken by the district was when the business manager came personally to the high school and took some equipment that belonged to an individual teacher and some equipment that belonged to the school’s P.E. department (which had been used for a class put on by the Get Fit program, a grant designed to help staff improve their health and lower the district’s insurance costs). This equipment was moved to the district office. (Don’t believe me? Go check. It’s still there.) This ham-fisted attempt to rectify the situation had nothing to do with the teachers’ concerns about the weight room, but it does beg the question about what kind of business the business manager was managing while taking this private property back to the district office. Regardless, this whole issue is certainly not a hold-up in the negotiations since the teachers have already stated that we’re willing to drop the language as soon as the board adopts a consistent and fair policy, and since the board has had ample opportunities to do so. We expect they will take care of this at the coming board meeting. Please attend that meeting to see if they do, so that the false rumor can be laid to rest permanently.

Because this bargaining situation has devolved to this stalemate, and because it has to do with issues that are so important (people’s livelihoods and the education of our communities’ children) it’s easy to see how emotions can run high and things could get ugly. That does not need to happen. This is a case of two groups of good people with different priorities. The people who sit on the school board donate their time and talents in positions where they only get attention when people are upset with them. They are doing what they think is best for this community’s kids. Unfortunately, we don’t think their priorities match up with those of the parents and voters. Large sums of money are being allocated for “curriculum” without clear descriptions of what that money will be used for. Is it textbooks? Tablets? High-paid guest lecturers? Expensive conferences (largely for administrators and specialists who don’t work one-on-one with kids)? All of these things have value. The district has also allocated money for future land purchases. At some point in the future, if enrollment continues to increase, the district will need more buildings and the land to put them on. Of course, increased enrollment also brings in more money, so we think it makes more sense to spend current dollars on current students. We know (and all the research supports) that the most important factors in a child’s education are the quality of his/her teachers and the amount of time he/she spends in the classroom with those teachers. We have exceptional teachers in our community, but we risk losing them when we offer wages that allow some of them to qualify for food stamps. We also risk losing students when we offer a shorter school year than many districts around us. The school board has agreed that these situations should be addressed. They just don’t want to do it right now. If you are concerned about the balance of priorities, and you want to see the district retain the best teachers and employ them for a full school year, please contact your board member privately and attend the next board meeting on December 9th at 6:30pm at the new district office (formerly the site of Henry Hill Elementary). Let them know that you want them to enter into mediation willing to compromise for the sake of the children of this community and the teachers who make that possible.


  1. Update: Since this piece was posted, the district has been working hard to return the work-out equipment to the rightful owners, and I understand they will be addressing the issue of teachers attending school functions at the next board meeting. We are hopeful that these are signals that the district wants to see this situation resolved and will be coming into mediation ready to compromise in order to get this done.

  2. Actually Ben, I have a question about fact 4. I'm hearing some teachers are experiencing a reduction of pay. Teachers that were hired with some experience, but top out the scale at 16+ years experience do not receive an increase until they have put at least ten years in with the district. So in essence a teacher who came in with 9 years experience would get a regular step increase, but remain at that same rate of pay for the next 3 years. Those teachers are making less this year as they are paying a heath insurance premium. Please correct me if I have misunderstood, I'm going by what was explained to me, not on what I have read for myself. This is an unfair hardship for many of our experienced staff.

  3. That's correct. Many of our teachers do not receive step increases because they have reached the top of the pay scale. Consequently, their pay only goes up if we negotiate a cost-of-living-increase (COLA). Since no settlement has been reached but insurance costs have increased, those teachers have seen a reduction in pay. Even if we do manage to negotiate a COLA, that has to be larger than the rate of inflation plus the amount of the insurance increases, or those teachers are still losing ground each year they teach for the Central School District. Because of the recession, teachers agreed to accept contracts with no COLA or with COLAs that were smaller than the rate of inflation for the last few years in order to save their colleagues from cuts and to keep the district afloat. We did this because we believed the economy would eventually bounce back, and we were assured that, when it did, the district would not forget about our sacrifices. Unfortunately, perhaps due to turn-over on the board and at the district office, or perhaps due to otherwise laudable and ambitious plans for the future, it seems the board has done precisely that: forgotten the commitment it made to teachers when times where tougher. Until an agreement is reached, our teachers continue to see a reduction in pay every month that goes by. In my opinion, that's an insult to the hard work they continue to do each day for the children of this community. We cannot agree to a settlement that fossilizes that insult and perpetuates it for years to come. A fair settlement will be one that recognizes the sacrifices teachers have made and attempts to make up ground after years of losses. That's not only something the taxpayers of this community should expect; it's something they should demand of the board if we're going to send the message to our children that education is valuable to us.