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Of Teacher Pay and Enrollment Bubbles

In a departure from usual form, I express myself with regard to the Geneva teachers' contract negotiations and the district's enrollment bubble. I'll have to run for cover!

By and large, I stay away from opinion pieces here in Patchland. For one thing, my journalism background has instilled a deep sense of providing balance and multiple points of view. For another, when you come down on one side of a question, you risk alienating those on another side. For still another, you can call me wishy-washy, but I can go off on a tear about something and then someone will say, “yes, but ...,” and I find myself acknowledging that the person has a good point.

And finally, let’s face it, Jeff Ward has already staked out strong points of view here!

But as I write this, on Monday, July 9, negotiations continue on a new contract for teachers (the first in three years) and a Geneva School Board discussion looms on whether to add additional sections of kindergarten to Mill Creek and Williamsburg elementary schools.

Teachers’ Contract

I’ve said for at least the last two years that if the teachers (and their negotiating team) were smart, they’d propose a one-year contract with a salary freeze. 

Why? Simple. In June 2009 the new three-year contract included salary increases of about 3 percent each year. Starting pay for a first-year teacher increased minimally over the life of the contract, but the average teacher with 12 years of experience and a master’s degree was to receive increases of 2.67 percent, 2.96 percent in the second year and 3.49 percent in the third year, according to an archived news story that quotes Kelley Munch, District 304 spokesperson.

There were other financial details, of course, including an increase in deductibles for health coverage, reductions in tuition reimbursement and a change to reimbursing teachers for only one graduate program.

But I think anyone would say that, given the financial condition at the time, this was a generous contract.

At the risk of alienating all the Geneva teachers I know, I suggest that now it’s time to pay the piper, to acknowledge the continued hard financial times and not only accept but actively promote a one-year freeze. Just one year! See where things stand next year! (I know at least a few Geneva schoolteachers who completely agree with me, too.) I’m not interested in an argument over how hard teachers work, that they take work home and give up weekends grading papers. I’m not interested in the counter-argument that teachers work for nine months out of the year and have two weeks at Christmas, a week off in the spring and countless days off here and there. That’s a conversation for another day.

There are many details that go into a contract, and negotiations are done behind closed doors. It’s possible teachers already have proposed this. It’s possible they have not, and that they’re uninterested in seeing salaries remain the same. 

But support staff pay has been frozen, administrator pay has been frozen. It’s the teachers’ turn. It would engender a boatload of good will.

Kindergarten Enrollment Bubble

Two weeks ago, the board tabled an agenda item on a staff recommendation to and staff to Mill Creek and Williamsburg schools, because anticipated class sizes of 27 and 28 at Mill Creek and 26, 26 and 25 at Williamsburg. Officials anticipated those numbers would continue to increase as summer moves toward the beginning of school.

Board members said they wanted to review the entire situation and consider alternatives, including busing students to other schools where enrollment is lower. And board members also said it’s time to look at boundary lines to see if adjustments are needed. That of course raised the question of whether–if boundary changes are coming next year–should students be disrupted THIS year and then perhaps again NEXT year.

Parents spoke in favor of adding sections and teachers. And the issue has prompted a lot of online debate, including 85 comments on Rick Nagel’s story of June 25. Then, on June 29, there was an additional story of an enrollment bubble existing in Fabyan Elementary’s first grade, with parents receiving letters asking for volunteers to bus their children to Mill Creek or Western.

My initial reaction? Save the money and bus the little darlings to a different school. Everyone is tired of taxes. If we can save the equivalent of one entire teacher (two half-day sessions), well, do it. 

But in the back of my mind I was remembering my own little darlings, many, many years past kindergarten. I remember being very far from pleased at the 31 kids in my oldest daughter’s kindergarten class, and attending a school board meeting to lend support to expanding those four sections into five for first grade. (This was granted, but we all got a lecture about supporting the district the next time a referendum was proposed.)

And I remember boundary changes that proposed our kids change schools, and being very happy when they stayed at Harrison.

It’s easy for those of us not facing this situation to dismiss parents’ concerns. It’s easy to say, essentially, a new school isn’t the end of the world, kids will adjust just fine if parents quit wailing, the board needs to save money wherever it can. And, in reading through some of the comments, I do tend to agree that if a new teacher is needed, perhaps the cost of that teacher could be financed by making a cut somewhere else.

But I don’t like kids being forced to change schools three times in three years, or two times in two years. Perhaps enough parents will volunteer to bus their children to a different school (perhaps with a guarantee that a second move won’t be forthcoming for X number of years) to make the problem go away. (A friend did this years ago and her boys have turned out just fine.) 

I only know it helps, sometimes, to look back a little more closely, and remember how it was when your own kids were small. Your answer to certain situations may change. At the least, perhaps you’ll be more sympathetic, even if your solution stays the same. 

Let the pounding, er, criticism begin! I’ll soon remember why I don’t often write opinion pieces ...

Bob McQuillan July 10, 2012 at 11:49 AM
Beth You are right on both topics and thanks for writing about them. Many times people assume what someone's opinion will be based on past experience. You are well known for being a big supporter of the Geneva Schools and I'm known for speaking out against increasing taxes. Yet on these two issues we totally agree. I have been working on a blog about the teachers contract and hopefully will submit something in the next few days. You are right with your comment that it is time to pay the piper. The board never asked the teachers to make concessions over the last three years when nearly every other district did. It's time for the Geneva Education Association to repay the taxpayers by agreeing to a hard freeze for at least one year. A hard freeze means no increase in both the step & lane components of teachers compensation. The announced contracted appeared to provide for @ 3% each year, many teachers made much more when the lane component was added. Residents will be shocked to find the increases that some received over the last 4-5 years. The kindergarten issue was handled incorrectly. The administration failed to provide the board members with adequate information from the start. When they asked for the right information, the rumor mill went into high gear among the parents. Many got upset just by the board's request for the right information. The board was doing what they were elected to do - make the right decision based on the right information.
Bob McQuillan July 10, 2012 at 12:08 PM
Make no mistake, the board DID NOT make it's decision because 100 people showed up to a meeting. They made their decision because it does not make sense to move kids two years in a row. My concern is that parents will now expect that every time they disagree with something they just need to show up at a board meeting and they will get their way. Ain't gonna happen. The administration's own hand out shows kindergarten enrollment is not increasing district wide. It has actually decreased over the last four years by about 60 students! The problem is that four schools are decreasing while two are increasing. Because of the boundary issue, flexibility is limited. We have plenty of space, it is just in the wrong place. We actually have much more capacity at the elementary level then we will need for many, many years. That is a situation that needs to be addressed immediately or the same problem will be repeated next year and the year after. The district must develop a creative plan to maximize the space that we have for traditional classrooms. We have several issues including debt repayment, reducing expenses and space usage that needs to be faced immediately. The sooner the board and administration admits the problems and develops viable solutions, the better we all will be. These problems did not happen overnight and the board & administration have taken too long to make the necessary changes. New parents to the district need to educate themselves on the issues at hand.

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