Shawnee Mission teachers speak of low morale, waning patience as contract stalemate drags on

Jay Senter - November 12, 2019 11:11 am
Teachers packed the sidewalk outside the Center for Academic Achievement in freezing cold holding up signs and chanting ahead of Monday’s Board of Education meeting.

Morale is low. And patience is running thin.

That was the message that more than a dozen speakers — teachers, parents and students — delivered to the Shawnee Mission School District’s board of education and administration Monday as teachers approach their fifth month of the 2019-20 school year without a contract.

It was the third time in as many board meetings that teachers clad in red have packed the board chambers to lobby for a new contract with better pay and working conditions. With more than 200 people in the room, speakers used the public comment item on the agenda to provide a slew of fresh examples of how rising class sizes and unusually high teaching loads have pushed their stress levels upward and job satisfaction down.

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More than 200 teachers and supporters, many clad in red, packed the Shawnee Mission board chambers Monday.

Several speakers pointed to the six-classes-a-day teaching load required for the bulk of secondary teachers — a move implemented under previous Superintendent Jim Hinson — as a major pain point. Neighboring districts Blue Valley, USD 232 and Olathe all have standard five-classes-a-day loads. The extra section of teaching each day increases the number of students teachers are responsible for and decreases the amount of time they have to plan and come up with individualized learning approaches for students at different skill levels. A number of teachers indicated that their work loads had led them to consider looking for other jobs or leaving the profession.

Robert Oliver, a medical science and health teacher at SM North, said that he is near the end of his career — but that he may have to retire sooner than he’d intended because he no longer feels he can be effective with the work load.

“I realize that my retirement is imminent, but it seems to be accelerating,” Oliver said. “Because I can’t teach to the standard of teaching that I want to because I don’t have the energy any longer. I’m running out of steam.”

Others said they had been waiting for years for the district to weather the financial struggles of the recession and battles over the state’s K-12 funding formula, and had reached the end of their patience. Meredith Sternberg, a teacher at SM East, said that she has long been a vocal proponent of the district, encouraging teachers to apply for jobs there and parents to send their kids to its schools. In recent years, she’s had a harder time being an evangelist for the district.

“I now listen to a groundswell of teachers who are suddenly too broken to care,” she said. “I teach six classes despite the fact that I know it hurts me and therefore my students to do so. I feel my love of teaching slipping away under a mound of stress and disinformation from this board.”

Work load emerges as major point of contention

Board President Brad Stratton (left) and Superintendent Mike Fulton listened to speakers at public comment Monday.

Negotiations between the administration and the teachers union broke down in July when teachers rejected a compensation offer that would have included a 1% base salary increase and a $45 per teacher per month contribution toward health insurance premiums in addition to step-and-column movement along the salary schedule.

The district pointed to the fact that Shawnee Mission’s salary schedule is the best paid in the state, and said that rising expenses had eaten into the $9.8 million in new money the district is getting this year under the updated K-12 funding formula.

With a professional mediator engaged in September, the district put a new offer on the table for a two-year contract that it said would have represented a 3.22% total compensation package increase in year one and a 3.65% compensation package increase in year two. The negotiating team from the National Education Association – Shawnee Mission rejected that offer as well, saying the district was still allocating too little of its new money to teachers salaries.

But it was workload, not salary, that emerged on Monday as the main point of contention. Superintendent Mike Fulton had mentioned earlier in the evening that the district would be looking at ways to reduce secondary teachers’ loads to five classes a day sometime in 2021 as part of its strategic planning process. That would be too little, too late, said many of the teachers.

SM East teacher Kristin Anderson said teachers were hopeful conditions would improve with the exit of former Superintendent Jim Hinson. Now, she said, hope is running out.

Kristin Anderson, a 19-year veteran at SM East, said that hopes among teachers for better conditions had been high after the departure of Hinson — but that patience for improvements was running out.

“In short, Hinson made every teacher less effective, and as a result, your students lost,” Anderson said. “But then Hinson left, and hope returned to the district. And we were patient for the first year…But now we are in year two and we are rapidly losing hope, Dr. Fulton. When we hear that looking into the feasibility of moving from six to five is on the agenda in 2021, we are rapidly losing faith in the Shawnee Mission School District.”

The district has estimated the cost of reducing teaching loads for secondary teachers from six classes a day to five would be just over $5 million.

After teachers rejected the district’s offer in September, negotiations moved to a state-mandated “fact finding” phase. Chief Communications Officer David Smith said on Monday that the district was pushing to get the earliest possible date on the books for a hearing where both parties will share testimony with a designated arbitrator who will make recommendations on a solution. Smith estimated it could be early December when that hearing takes place.

At the end of public comment Monday, Board President Brad Stratton addressed the crowd, saying the board planned to get through fact finding before returning to the negotiating table.

“We want to get this over right now,” Stratton said. “We will be pushing to get fact finding done as soon as possible. Once we do that, then we can sit down at the table, and then the board can take action.”

Several state lawmakers from the Shawnee Mission area attended the meeting at points: Reps. Tom Cox, Stephanie Clayton, Brett Parker, Brandon Woodard and Jerry Stogsdill.

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