Editor’s Note: This was read by five school district employees at the April 8 Douglas County School of Trustees meeting.
“Us” and “them” … why? When did this happen? How did it happen? Aren’t we all part of the same community? Aren’t we all part of the Douglas County School District? Aren’t we part of the same educational tree … with each and every one of us representing varied, yet essential parts? So why then the surliness directed at teachers at recent board meetings? Why the air of disdain? There seems to be an unwillingness on the district’s part to truly negotiate in a spirit of community, of kinship, of recognition, of respect. I am not a botanist, but I do know enough to recognize that every section of a tree needs to be healthy, or eventually the tree as a whole will begin to wither away and die.
Each and every day as teachers, we encourage students to be accepting of one another’s differences. To listen to others, to communicate, not just wait for the person to finish what they are saying, so you can jump in and speak. This is not communication. Communication is not just saying what you think. Communication is also listening, considering, wondering, asking, evaluating, and in a setting of negotiation in particular… negotiating and compromising. There should be give and take, not just one party giving and certainly not just one party taking.
So speaking of taking … during negotiations the past few cycles, Douglas County teachers agreed to absorb monetary losses and loss of personal time. This was done in order to help the district weather recent economic challenges, in a manner least impactful to our students. Last year teachers agreed to work two extra days without pay. In addition, we also agreed to contribute two-and-an-eighth percent of our PERS directly from our salaries, resulting in a loss of income. Teachers recognized we were taking a “hit for the team.” That these personal sacrifices might mean one less teacher lost to their students. We know that fewer teachers usually equates to larger class sizes. Larger class sizes inherently makes it more challenging to reach and teach each and every student in our classroom, which all teachers strive to do.
Veteran teachers took an even bigger hit. These teachers who have reached the last column of the pay scale, having dedicated 20 years or more to this school district, they suffered a larger reduction in pay. Their only hope for monetary growth is a cost of living increase, one that has been denied all teachers for six years. Unless of course, the district increases the longevity cap, like they have for our administrators.
A reoccurring statement made by the district that they simply don’t have the money to offer teachers an acceptable contract, that there are no funds available, we believe is without merit. Case in point, the district claims that declining enrollment has resulted in less funding. However, this declining enrollment has been offset by the gradual RIFS that have been made over the last few years. Also, the 10.6 percent per pupil support increase received from the state, more than compensates for any declining enrollment seen throughout the district. Not to mention, that this per pupil support is set to increase between 2 and 3 percent in the coming year. Their assertion of a lack of funds is questionable. It would appear that the district’s budget is under-spending by 4 percent rather than the school board authorized 1.5 to 2 percent. That means that up to 2 to 2.5 percent of our total budget is not being allocated as designated by law. In laymen’s terms, a nonprofit organization is ending the school year with a unnecessary surplus of money. Money that could be and should be spent to help improve the quality of education for our students. As a school board member, we offer you this information, because you may or may not be aware of this questionable financial practice.
With yet another impasse in negotiations (the third in a row mind you) those of us who naively believed that once the economy rebounded and funding improved, that we’d be compensated for our sacrifices, now feel like fools. There was a sense of unity and shared sacrifice district-wide, but teachers are now being overlooked while others are not.
There seems to be a glaring difference between what the district and school board says about valuing teachers and what they actually do to reflect it. Case in point, DCSD ranks third highest for high school graduation rates in the state, but the district hesitates to share its recent per pupil support increase from the State, approximately 3.36 million dollars. It did however share this influx with school administrators and confidential executive secretaries. We do not begrudge their monetary gains, but feel that we too should be recognized for our efforts, beyond a pat on the back. The worst of this economic crisis has passed. Now is the time to compensate those on the front lines who ensured, even with the challenges we continue to face, that our students receive the best education possible.
An example of student’s in Douglas County receiving the best education is the five-star rating recently received by CVMS. CVMS was the only school in Douglas County and the only school within a five-district radius to receive this accolade. Administrators in the district wisely negotiated a bonus, should their school reach this esteemed status. CVMS administrators rightfully received their bonus. Teachers were genuinely praised and thanked for their hard work in helping to achieve this goal. Beyond verbal appreciation what did the teachers receive from the district? Nothing. A pattern that continues today, as we once again face the prospect of arbitration, because our district hesitates to fairly compensate its teachers.
Dr. Noonan, you and your administration have always been generous with your praise of our efforts and the resulting success we see in our students and for this we are grateful. However, those words don’t pay our mortgages, they don’t put food on our tables, they don’t fill our car’s gas tank, they don’t help pay our bills or our children’s tuition to college. They also don’t make up for the lost classroom budgets, that barely compensated us in the first place, for our out of pocket expenses, a reality somehow inherent to this job. For some teachers these expenses total hundreds if not thousands of dollars.
We know you appreciate all we do, however it’s hard to believe that we are genuinely valued by our district - our board - when we haven’t received a raise in 6 years … 6 years. Are we not worth it? Do you not consider the future of your teachers a valuable investment? Are we not the backbone of this district? How can we possibly expect to keep excellent teachers, when out of 17 school districts in the state, we rank the 15th lowest in teacher salaries. Why would someone work here, for Douglas County, the county with the highest cost of living in the state of Nevada, when they can drive a short distance to Carson City, Reno, Yerington, Fallon, and receive more money, and pay less to live. The cost of living in Douglas County alone has risen 11.2 percent over the past 6 years.
There seems to be an expectation on behalf of the district, that somehow we should be willing to make less, for the privilege of living here. Yes, this a beautiful place to live, but do we really want to rely on that in order to keep and attract the best and the brightest. What we will end up with unfortunately is the leftovers. Douglas County will become a stepping-stone for teachers rather than a permanent home for their professional careers. If you can’t afford to make a life here, you can’t stay. Without the best of the best our students will suffer, it is inevitable, how can they not? Their success depends upon us. Our success, as an educational community, depends upon you. So, what is the role of a school board member? To be the trustee, the caretaker, the impartial custodians of our school district, elected officials entrusted with representing the many voices that make up Douglas County. So we invite you to ask yourselves, when was the last time you visited a classroom? Spoke to a teacher, or a bus driver, or a custodian about how things are going at their school? Now, ask yourselves, when was the last time you spoke with Lisa Noonan, Rommie Cronin, Rich Alexander, and others at the administrative level about how things are going at our schools. If you answered, “Just a few minutes ago,” to this question and “I don’t remember,” to the first question, how is it possible to have an informed, balanced, and impartial, viewpoint? Has the “us” and “them” mentality become so entrenched that we no longer know how to begin to bridge the divide. But the answer is simple … we begin today. You, as our school board, have the power to influence the district with regards to negotiations. You do not have to remain silent, this is a choice you are making, but we need your voice. Each member of this board is an elected official. Elected by us, the citizens of Douglas County, to protect the quality and integrity of our schools. You have the power to end this impasse. You do. You have the power to direct the district to go back to the table with a reasonable offer. The most recent offer made by the district of less than one percent, calculating in employee PERS contributions that were negotiated in last year’s contract, is not reasonable. It is rather an embarrassment to the district and an insult to teachers. Why should the district pay another 15 to 20 thousand dollars for the third year in a row, to arbitrators, when a fair, reasonable, and compensatory contract is possible. A contract that acknowledges our continued hard work and efforts, our dedication as professionals, and our loyalty to this district and our students.
In closing, please know that what has been shared here today is the result of a collaborative effort. It reflects the voices of many teachers in the district. Although we all face different challenges in our lives, we are united as devoted professionals, who seek nothing but the best, for ourselves and our students. We thank you for your time and consideration. With your help and guidance, we look forward to an amicable, fair, and prudent solution to this impasse.
Meneley fifth-grade teachers Vivian Michalik and Trich Michitarian, Meneley reading specialist Lisa Bytheway, Carson Valley Middle School English teacher Danielle Campbell, Whittell High School secretary Maria Parola.