Wichita teachers to rally before school board meeting

06/10/2012 5:00 AM

03/11/2013 1:48 PM

With contract talks stalled and questions still swirling around the school district’s next budget, dozens of Wichita teachers plan to rally outside North High School on Monday in a demonstration of support for educators.

“This is really just to encourage support for our teachers being allowed to be a part of the solution for the school system,” said Brent Lewis, a North High teacher who helped organize the rally.

“We just want for everyone to have a chance to contribute. That’s really what it’s about.”

Representatives for the Wichita school district and the local teachers union declared an impasse late last month after three months of contract talks resulted in little progress toward an agreement.

Union leaders wanted to extend public negotiations rather than seek federal mediation, which requires closed-door sessions. The sides had not discussed salaries, citing a need to wait until state lawmakers acted on school funding, which they did in May.

District officials said this year’s talks had been adversarial and that mediation would enable the sides to reach agreement more quickly.

On Monday, Wichita school board members will get their first preliminary look at the 2012-13 budget. Superintendent John Allison will present a budget overview, including expected cost increases, cuts in federal funding and the effects of a new funding plan approved by state lawmakers.

“I’m not making any recommendations” Monday, Allison said. “Now that we know what the state’s doing … we’ll have a ballpark and we’re just going to lay out what’s there.”

United Teachers of Wichita, which represents the district’s 4,000 teachers, has asked for a 3 percent salary increase and a return to raises, plus back pay, for additional education or experience, known as steps and tracks. They also seek fewer work hours outside the classroom, including in-service days.

District officials have proposed freezing teacher pay at 2008 levels.

Starting salary for a Wichita teacher is $37,998 a year, according to district officials. The average annual salary is $47,665.

School board president Betty Arnold said she thinks Allison and the board have done “an outstanding job” shielding teachers from the impact of severe cuts in education funding.

“It’s not as though anyone is out to say that teachers aren’t important or that teachers shouldn’t be compensated,” Arnold said. “But if you don’t have the money, you don’t have the money.”

Over the past three years the Wichita district has cut more than $50 million from its budget, including more than 200 jobs. But so far no classroom teachers have been laid off, Allison said.

When the board replaced high school librarians with library clerks and eliminated the fifth-grade orchestra program, he said, the librarians and music teachers were offered jobs elsewhere in the district.

“We’ve done it (cutbacks) through attrition. We’ve done it by cutting jobs downtown or in classified,” Allison said, referring to reductions in learning services, custodians and other areas.

During contract talks this spring, union officials proposed increasing the district’s local-option budget. The last increase was in 2007, when the school board raised the tax rate by 2 mills to help fund a 4-percent raise for teachers.

Arnold, the board president, said last week that a tax hike is “nothing I really want to consider as an option right now.”

“You’re seeing more people without a job with the layoffs we have seen and the layoffs that are coming,” Arnold said. “The average household is saying, ‘I feel lucky to just have a job.’

“So there has to be some caution there. We’re trying to be sensitive to the teachers, but we also have to be sensitive to our taxpayers and what they’re going through.”

Lewis, the North High teacher, said Monday’s demonstration is not about teacher raises but about district officials “being really dismissive about some of our concerns.” He pointed to professional development, which many teachers have noted through surveys is not as useful or relevant as it could be.

“I just think any effective organization gathers input from the bottom up, and our leadership creates … top-down policy,” Lewis said.

“This (rally) isn’t meant to try to tear anything down. As educators, we just need all hands on deck right now and everybody rowing.”

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