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Teachers vow to keep working

by Merrie Leininger

The president of the Douglas County teachers’ union promised Tuesday that members would keep working despite stalled contract negotiations.

More than 250 teachers crowded into the CVIC Hall in order to discuss other alternatives.

As the teachers walked into the meeting, sign-up sheets that read, “Yes, I am willing to participate in a letter-writing campaign,” “Yes, I am willing to picket at school board meetings,” and “Yes, I am willing to be on the negotiations team,” awaited them.

DCPEA president Marty Cronin, a teacher at Douglas High School, said he thinks a grass-roots appeal to the school board is the only way to change the school district vs. the teachers attitude that prevails.

Picket lines, telephone trees and addressing the school board during the board meetings at public comment are planned.

Cronin began the meeting by dispelling rumors that the teachers are thinking about work slowdowns as a bargaining tool.

“I believe we are a professional association and what we do is for kids. We do not intend to raise ‘blue flus,’ slowdowns or anything that will adversely affect the kids in this community,” he said. “These are our kids and this is our community and they deserve the best we can give them. Just do the job you were hired to do and let the community decide who’s right and who’s wrong.”

Negotiations team leader Susan Lacey, a teacher at C.C. Meneley Elementary School, gave teachers a run-down on the negotiations.

She said the team brought items to the table that had been identified by 208 teachers as issues important to them.

Issues included unrestricted sick and personal days, more preparation time, fair compensation for extra work, shared contracts and language changes so site administrators can’t just demand teachers work after hours.

She also said teachers were upset over being expected to look for bombs in their classrooms in case of a bomb threat.

“Somehow we didn’t feel that was in our job description,” Lacey said.

She said when the district came back with its counter proposals, it was clear the district would not be meeting the teachers half way.

“They wanted 10 sick days instead of 15. They wanted our second personal day to be used only for legal reasons or for testing for state certification. It also said we would have a doctor’s excuse for any sick day and there was no salary proposal,” Lacey said.

She said district Business Director Rick Kester told the negotiations team there was $2.6 million in the unreserved budget, more than had been in it for at least five years.

“Rick said he did have concerns with dropping student enrollment, but that teachers were not a priority for that money,” Lacey said. “They have always been punitive, regressive, mean-spirited and just not interested in listening to what we want.”

– School district response. School board president Don Forrester said Tuesday he agrees that the teachers deserve all the credit for the student achievement in the district.

“One, they’re dead wrong, we appreciate teachers and we value them. This is not the teachers against the board, it is really union tactics to cause problems,” Forrester said. “I agree the main reason our students do so well are teachers. I hate to see morale problems. But I will not spend money we don’t have.”

In a press release from the school district, communications coordinator Maggie Allen said a 4.7 percent salary increase would amount to $1,200,000, and with a drop in enrollment this year of 164 students, the district will receive $700,000 less from the state next year.

“It is true the DCSD does have a budgeted ending fund balance of $1,900,000 in the current fiscal year; however, this is not surplus money. It is a one-time source of money, similar to a personal savings account in that once it is used, it is gone,” Allen said.

The fault really lies in the state Legislature, Forrester said.

The association agrees and heard from the state teachers’ association that is trying to get an initiative for more money for public education in our state.

Lacey said average DCSD teachers’ salaries are the fifth highest in the state. She said the only district which has settled for no raise in their contract negotiations is Eureka County, which has significant financial issues.

“I make less money than I did last year, because our insurance and the deductible went up. This is a bull market. I want to know another company in a bull market that gives their employees less money every year. Teachers in this district are tired, they are leaving the profession,” Lacey said to loud applause. “But this is really about feeling respected and giving us our due – giving us a thank-you, a pat on the back. We’re professionals, we’re dedicated, but it’s despite the district, not because of the district.”

Forrester said as of last week, most school districts haven’t settled contract negotiations and don’t have any money to give, either.

– Claim filed. The association filed a counter unfair labor practice claim with the state labor board. Lacey said she believed the school district had filed its claim to re-allocate money so salary raises would be impossible.

A theme repeated throughout the night by the teachers was that the district and board don’t respect them.

Teachers filled out papers with their complaints at the beginning of the meeting and Cronin read some of them aloud.

“The most difficult thing or worse thing about working in the district is the school board’s attitude toward teachers. Contract negotiations should last hours, not months,” Cronin read. “The most difficult thing about working in the district is the way they make us feel unappreciated unappreciated – the us-vs.-them attitude they foster.”

Some of the comments teachers wrote under the column titled “the best part of working for the district” were “I can’t remember. I know I used to like working here,” and “The students.”

The district employs 458 teachers. Starting salary for a beginning teacher is $28,664.