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Concerns Aired: Teachers Offer ‘State Of The Union’

As Newtown Federation of Teachers President Tom Kuroski said at the Tuesday, May 20, Board of Education meeting, members of the teachers’ union were there to deliver what Mr Kuroski called a “State of the Union.”

Mr Kuroski said he has taught for his entire career, 29 years, in Newtown.

“We have assembled a cross-section of teachers from each school who have volunteered to provide you with a perspective of what has been happening in our district over the past few years,” Mr Kuroski said.

Mary Connolly, a language arts teacher at Newtown Middle School, was the first to speak following Mr Kuroski.

“In 2009, Newtown teachers were furloughed five days,” said Ms Connolly. “This means we lost five days of pay and five days of professional development. The following school year the teachers’ work year was reduced from 189 days to 187 days by the Board of Education.”

While student days were not changed, Ms Connolly said teachers lost professional development days. With less time for training and planning, Ms Connolly said teachers are still expected to do an “ever-changing job.”

“Furthermore, the district added five minutes to the school day for four straight years,” said Ms Connolly.

Middle Gate Elementary School art teacher Jean Walter spoke regarding new initiatives in the district. “Everyone is aware that our educational system is undergoing an incredible evolution,” Ms Walter said. She listed national educational initiatives before pointing out a “plethora of other programs” the Newtown school district has implemented in, what she said, is, “the spirit of continuous improvement.”

“We certainly want to challenge ourselves and students; however, with the number of changes, teachers are not able to ascertain the impact of each program on our students,” said Ms Walter.

Teachers, Ms Walter said, should have the opportunity to evaluate something that will be taught and how it would be taught.

“Rather than reassess what missions are truly valuable to the district, when we sought to provide feedback Newtown teachers were told to just continue moving forward,” Ms Walter said. “Even the state has taken the time to reevaluate their teacher evaluation plan, realizing that it was an impossible task; however, our district has not followed suit.”

Newtown’s teacher growth plan, Ms Walter said, is an example of a decision made by the district that needs to be revisited.

Hawley Elementary School fourth grade teacher Michael Wight spoke next. He said, leading up to the 2012 negotiations between the school board and the teachers’ union, “We were cautiously optimistic that we would engage in fruitful discussion with representatives of the Newtown Board of Education.”

Instead, Mr Wight said, the negotiations were ended with a “lack of good-faith dialogue.”

Mr Wight said preparations by the teachers’ union focused on contractual changes that he said would have benefited the school district with “zero percent budget impact.” Representatives from the Board of Education would not discuss most of those items during negotiations, according to Mr Wight.

“For years, Newtown teachers have been frozen on salary steps or next steps were consolidated,” said Mr Wight. “Simply stated, Newtown teachers have experienced minimal or no increase in salary over a period of years… These decisions by the district have ripple repercussions throughout the duration of our careers and our retirement.”

Fewer experienced teachers, Mr Wight said, are hired into the school district at a higher step than teachers who have already been in the district. The practice sows distrust and poor morale among district teachers, according to Mr Wight.

 

12/14 Impact

The events of 12/14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School continue to impact staff, according to Sandy Hook kindergarten teacher Janet Vollmer.

“Newtown teachers were required to return to school immediately after the tragedy,” Ms Vollmer said. “Sandy Hook teachers gave up their personal time preparing the classrooms while they were still grieving. While there is not a handbook on the best means to address such an incident, the lack of sensitivity displayed by many in the district was extremely disappointing.”

The long-term impact of the tragedy is unknown, Ms Vollmer said, while saying support is still needed.

The process of reducing staff has also affected morale in the district, as Reed Intermediate School sixth grade teacher Lil Martenson explained when she spoke.

“As you know, we have looked for ways to address the decreasing enrollment,” said Ms Martenson. “One idea proposed offering an early retirement incentive. Unlike any other district in the state, our union was asked to develop its own retirement package, a process usually undertaken by the local boards of education.”

Ms Martenson said a reasonable plan was formulated and presented to the then-superintendent, “seeking a means to address the staffing issues and budgetary issues.”

The offer was discussed during a March 4 school board meeting, according to Ms Martenson, and a letter rejecting the offer was shared with the union on March 5.

“We were not notified of the discussion being an agenda item, nor were we invited to participate in the conversation,” said Ms Martenson. “Teachers’ careers and financial stability are at stake. Union participation in the process could have resulted in a mutually agreeable solution, which would have been beneficial to the board, teachers, and, most importantly, the children of Newtown.”

In neighboring towns, Ms Martenson said retirement packages were offered.

“There are 90 senior teachers in Newtown who meet the criteria to accept a retirement incentive and none were offered,” said Ms Martenson. “How could the Newtown Board of Education not recognize, respect, and value these dedicated educators as well as ignore a savings to the town?”

A partnership with the union and the new administration, Ms Martenson said, has resulted in a reinstatement of the teachers who received reduction in force notifications earlier this fiscal year. That effort, she said, was appreciated.

NHS science teacher Trent Harrison spoke about current programs in the district.

“Overlapping programs and initiatives, such as [the Common Core State Standards] and the new teacher growth plan, which compete for limited time and virtually no funding, have the potential to create chaos,” said Mr Trent.

Those programs, along with other initiatives — Reader’s Workshop, Professional Learning Communities, Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support, Responsive Classroom, Second Step, Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) Testing, and the ORIGO Stepping Stones math program — teachers are asked to implement in classrooms generate concern, according to Mr Trent.

“We do not dispute the benefits of many of these programs or initiatives; our concerns are the continual schedule disruptions, lack of technology to truly utilize some of these programs, lack of training, and the reduction in classroom teaching time,” said Mr Trent. “That, coupled with the lack of input, is causing teachers to feel frustrated as well as undervalued as professionals.”

The last teacher to speak, Head O’ Meadow physical education teacher Steve Dreger, spoke about the future.

“It’s a well-known fact that Newtown has an exemplary school system,” Mr Dreger said.

Last year’s Connecticut Mastery Test results demonstrated this, Mr Dreger said, as presented by Assistant Superintendent of Schools Linda Gejda earlier this year. But, to move forward, Mr Dreger said, trust and teacher moral needs to be rebuilt.

“Teachers losing their jobs, seeing our teachers being refused a retirement incentive, continual initiatives, and a zero budget are not a means to a successful end,” said Mr Dreger. “In spite of this, Newtown teachers continue to do their jobs well today, and Newtown teachers will continue to do their jobs well tomorrow.”

Mr Kuroski finished by saying the teachers are willing to begin a new chapter and asked the school board and district administrators present, “Will you join us?”

Superintendent of Schools Joseph Erardi, Jr, responded, saying the presentation was a beginning, likening it to a renaissance.

“I would suggest to the Board of Education that the administration goes forward and works with the Newtown Federation of Teachers leadership board… and that we put together a committee of climate and culture that is done in partnership with central office, staff, and administration, and perhaps with Board of Ed representation,” said Dr Erardi.

Dr Erardi said he saw the presentation in a “positive light,” adding later that he saw the intent of the federation is to do the absolute best work as possible

“Because we are all in this together. We truly are,” the superintendent said.

After thanking the teachers for speaking, BOE Vice Chair Laura Roche said the board is taking their comments seriously.

“We’re listening and one of the reasons we put [Dr Erardi] here is to have this conversation,” Ms Roche said.

Both school board members David Freedman and John Vouros also said they were looking forward to being part of the process of working with the teachers’ union.

“You should not fear anything anymore,” Mr Vouros said. “We certainly don’t.”

Everything the teachers acknowledged at the meeting, Mr Vouros said, is “key,” adding, “There is a ways to go.”

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