Archive for Wednesday, March 2, 2011

First Bell: Teacher negotiations begin Wednesday; reconfiguration to open rooms in elementary schools; board passes on school ‘choice’

March 2, 2011


A few education-oriented items from around the area:

Teachers want more pay. Administrators want to adjust fringe benefits.

Both sides will sit down Wednesday night at Lawrence school district headquarters, to start negotiating a master agreement for the 2011-2012 school year that covers salaries, benefits, training, working conditions, schedules and other matters for the district’s 900 licensed personnel.

The first negotiating session starts at 5 p.m. in the board meeting room at 110 McDonald Drive.

Both sides already have outlined the areas they’re interested in negotiating during the coming weeks.

Leaders of the Lawrence Education Association, which represents teachers and other licensed personnel, notified the district in late January of their organization’s desire to talk money.

“Because of the high priority the association places on the salary issue, we suggest representatives of the BOE [school board] and association meet in early February to frame this issue and begin discussions that will yield compensation levels that match this district’s commitment to excellence in education,” said the leaders, Valerie Johnson-Powell, LEA president; and David Reber, the association’s negotiations chairman.

The district, meanwhile, notified teachers that it would be interested in discussing fringe benefits, professional development and evaluation issues.

The fringe benefits section of the agreement covers items such as health insurance coverage for licensed employees, and the district wants to “consider amendments to the fringe benefits provisions, including changes in the board contribution.”

As for professional development, the district wants to consider amending rules for collaboration. Suggested changes regarding evaluations would involve language recommended by a subcommittee of teachers and administrators, which has been studying the issue for the past two years.

Late last year, administrators and teachers finished negotiations related to the district’s upcoming reconfiguration of schools. Under the changes, nearly half of teachers in the district were slated to get a pay increase beginning this month, ranging from a total of $250 to $700 for the remainder of the 2010-11 school year.


Valerie Johnson-Powell, president of the Lawrence Education Association, recently offered a concrete description of how much capacity is set to be available next year in the district’s elementary schools.

Johnson-Powell, a teacher, reminded her colleagues on the Lawrence Elementary School Facility Vision Task Force that the reconfiguration of schools that takes effect next year — specifically, to have sixth-graders attend middle school — will move 32 classes out of the district elementaries.

That would leave 32 classrooms vacant, she said, unless other changes were made.

“To keep the status quo, you could basically close a three-section school and a two-section school and basically be at the same level of capacity,” Johnson-Powell said Tuesday, when I called her to discuss recommendations of the task force.

And in case anybody’s wondering: Generally, a three-section school is a building that has three classrooms for each grade level, such as Sunflower School; a two-section school has two classrooms for each grade level, such as Broken Arrow.

The task force recommended closing Wakarusa Valley. The school board plans to discuss the issue March 14, then conduct a formal public hearing March 28.

“Our proposal is actually very conservative, because we’re proposing (to close) one,” Johnson-Powell said, noting that there “was no right answer” about which school to recommend for closure.

Her worry: If the district doesn’t close a school, there will be pressure to increase class sizes even more for next year.

“I understand that everybody is tied to their building, but I am worried that if we raise the (teacher-student) ratio again, more harm will happen to the children,” she said.

The task force also supports seeking a bond issue that would address capital needs for elementary schools, and to pursue consolidating a list of six schools down to either four or three schools within three to five years. Schools suggested for consolidation consideration are Cordley, Hillcrest, Kennedy, New York, Pinckney and Sunset Hill.


Any talk of creating magnet schools, or charter schools, or any other form of “choice” schools in the Lawrence school district will just have to wait.

And only then if board members want to bring it up.

Monday night, board members heard a report from Rick Doll, district superintendent, outlining various options and pros and cons in considering school “choice.” The report came at the request of Rich Minder, board president, who previously has discussed prospects for a “dual-language immersion” school in the district, possibly in the current home of New York School if and when the school might be consolidated into a new building during the next three to five years.

But the prospect of pursuing such school choice options — nearly a month before board elections, and four months before three or possibly four new board members will take office — failed to win support from Minder’s colleagues.

Especially with the district staring at a need to make an estimated $3 million or more in cuts to next year’s budget.

“It does take a little bit more,” Marlene Merrill, the lone incumbent board member seeking re-election, said of the likely financial needs for starting new programs, much less schools. “At this point in time, we don’t have that little bit more to put into it.”

Longtime board member Mary Loveland, who will leave the board in July, said that if an idea for a magnet, themed or charter schools was good enough for some students, such options should be made available to all students in every school.

“All kids should be exposed to everything,” she said.

Minder said that such a program would allow the district to pursue innovation that could make the entire district better.

Doll, for his part, followed up on a suggestion from board member Scott Morgan that the issue could be discussed by board members during their next annual goals-setting session. That would be possible after new board members are seated in July.

— The First Bell e-mailbox is always open:


Amy Bartle 7 years, 3 months ago

“All kids should be exposed to everything." What's that supposed to mean?!

Jeff Plinsky 7 years, 3 months ago

As a matter of fact, Lateralis, there is a group of teachers and administrators working under a Memo of Understanding to restructure evaluation in USD 497. This is one of the issues that was noticed in the letters mentioned in the article above. It may surprise you to note that both sides recognize the need to make evaluations work better. Try attending the negotiations sessions (they are open to the public). You might decide that the teachers in Lawrence aren't the money-grubbing union thugs some would make them out to be.

Also, if you ask teachers, you'll learn that it really doesn't take that much to remove an ineffective teacher from the classroom. It does require the administrator to observe the teacher, identify the problem(s), give the teacher a chance to fix the problem(s), and then a meeting where the administrator gives notice of termination. In clear cut cases, this can go very quickly. In cases that are not clear cut, a dilligent administrator can still remove a teacher in a few days. The problem is, the administrator has to be in the classroom to observe what is going on. IMHO, that doesn't happen often enough.

And then, if the teacher demands a due process hearing, the admin still has the option of assigning him/her to non-classroom duties until such time as the issue is resolved. And the ultimate decision is made by the hearing officer, which is generally the superintendent. So if admin wants someone gone, they just have to have their ducks in a row to make it happen.

What usually causes this to drag on is the administrator's unwillingness to fire someone in the middle of the semester. Hiring a new teacher mid-semester is difficult, and the field of candidates is often sub-standard (because the top notch folks already have jobs). So the administrator typically chooses the "devil you know" option.

And, of course, you went to school at a time when there was less accountability in the system than there is today. Your crappy teachers were likely buddies with their administration, and thus were insulated from criticism. But then again, every industry has people who keep their jobs by sucking up to the boss. Teachers' unions don't make that more or less likely.

eric1889 7 years, 3 months ago

In Kansas, teachers are not given tenure. They receive their due process rights after the completion of their 3 year. This does not mean that the teacher can not be fired, but that the district must have cause to dismiss the teacher. This could be poor evaluations from the school administration, outside conduct, etc.

kugrad 7 years, 3 months ago

Lateralis, I think I can clarify. People use the term "tenure" when referring to a teacher being subject to continuing contract law. This is not actually the same thing as tenure. A teacher gains due process rights, as Eric1889 pointed out, but they also are obligated under continuing contract law. This means they are guaranteed a job at their district the following year. This is a two-edged sword, as a teacher can be held to their contract with one district when they wish to move to another district. This happened to me. I had to commute 1 hour each way for a year as I could not get out of my old position. It actually is not true that it is "next to impossible," to fire a teacher. A fact never reported in the media might interest you. The firing rates for teachers are almost twice as high in unionized states. Non-union states have the lowest firing rates. Unions and the negotiated evaluation systems actually have a positive effect on removing poor teachers, although the union will, rightfully, insist that due process rights be followed. While I think your point is well-taken that there may me too many 'adequate' but not excellent teachers, I have 2 ideas about this. First, the same could be said of any profession there is. A few are excellent, many are above average, and a lot are average or below. I haven't seen mass firings in any other field for mediocrity. Excellence is always the exception in human endeavors. Well, the response to my first idea would be that teaching is more important than many other jobs, which leads to my second idea. Teachers are not paid in accordance with the importance of their jobs. How are you going to attract the most excellent people into a field where they will be underpaid, berated, and deal with daily negativity from politicians and the media? You want excellence? Pay for it. I'm breaking this in two here so I can post it all, continued.

kugrad 7 years, 3 months ago

pt. 2

There is evidence that greater salary does improve educational performance. I think some of this has to do with retention by a district. However, consider the logic of the common argument now making the rounds in conservative circles and on Fox: This argument holds, wrongly, that teachers have "no incentive" to do better because (a) they get a raise anyway every year, b) it is impossible to fire them). What then do they suggest as a better evaluation system? Financial incentives. In other words, they hold the explicit belief that teachers will do better if they are paid more. That teachers will work harder for more money. Now these are the same people who argue that paying teachers more does absolutely no good. As for the annual raise - once you hit the top of the salary scale you have nowhere to go. Once there teachers don't automatically get a raise, but in recent times, - just counting the contract hours it might be 7 cents an hour or something. Teaching isn't a high-paid profession when one considers the educational prerequisites for employment. That average salary you report needs qualification. More than half of Kansas teachers are within 5 years of retirement, so they are only earning an average of about $41-42 K after a lifetime of service. Also consider that many teachers have a Master's Degree (few other MA's result in such a low average salary) and some have PhD's - all counted in that figure.
So, I can appreciate your sentiments and questions, but the reporting on these issues in the media is always incomplete and meant to stir controversy and accusation, not fair discussion. Have a nice day.

SunflowerChinaCat 7 years, 3 months ago

A clarification about that 15 weeks of vacation.....teachers do not get "paid vacations" ever. Teachers' salaries are figured by how many days they work in the classroom. For most districts that is between 182-190 days in a 365-day year. Since many teachers have families to support, districts pay them on a bi-monthly basis throughout the year. So while it may appear teachers get a 15 weeks of vacation, it is technically unpaid time off. I taught at public schools in northeastern Kansas for ten years, starting at 22,000 in 1993. It was 2004 before I made 28,000 as a teacher.

After nearly 20 years of teaching, I clear 34,000 for teaching 185 days a year. During the nine months of being in the classroom, I work every single Sunday afternoon, a couple of nights during the week and during those "vacations" at Chrismas, Thanksgiving, and spring break. I do not get paid for working these days, but I do so because I care about being a good teacher. (For 18 of the 20 years I have been a teacher, I have worked a second job to make ends meet. I was finally able to buy my first house, at age 42, two years ago.)

If you think it sounds like a "damn good job" sign up!! You too can work long, hard hours, get called all sorts of terrible names by your students and their parents, be criticized or patronized by just about everyone who thinks they can do your job better than you can (though they never have tried), buy your own office supplies, work in buildings that are full of abestos and literally falling down around you, and, don't forget, those 15 weeks of (unpaid) vacation.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 7 years, 3 months ago

" Unions are great and a strike is a powerful tool. To not put it to use is as good as not having it."

There may be some exceptions in some areas, but in Kansas, teachers are not allowed to strike.

SunflowerChinaCat 7 years, 3 months ago

@Lateralis: I chose the right profession because I believe in what I do, and I know I am a good teacher. Every profession has its pros and cons. I am rather fed up with just about everyone being an expert on all that is wrong with teachers and how fat all us teachers are living on the taxpayers' dime.

I have no doubt you had a few lousy teachers in your time. So did I. I also had some outstanding teachers. Like KUgrad says, excellence tends to be the exception everywhere. I have had one or two excellent doctors in my life and many who were mediocre at best. The same goes for waiters, dentists, cops, storeclerks, customer service representatives, and bosses:a few examples of excellence, some really good, and more than half mediocre. On the other hand, lawyers and politicians have proved to be unequivically incompetent.

SunflowerChinaCat 7 years, 3 months ago

I have always been a union member, and I definitely see much need improvements. I agree 100% with the charge that teachers' unions have made it all but impossible to fire an incompetent teacher. That needs to change immediately. In the last few years, I have considered dropping my union membership because of frustrations with what I view as the same old bureaucratic BS going on in the union ranks as goes on in the upper administrative levels of most districts. To answer your other question, I teach English literature and English as a second language at a high school. Also, I was not accusing you of being an expert in particular....the media, the bureaucrats, the politicians specifically.

conservative 7 years, 3 months ago

32 empty classrooms, They need to be closing more than 1 small elementary school. I know people like having their neighborhood school, but the larger schools are much more economical continuing to run 15 (maybe 14 next year) elementary schools is too much for this town.

spiderd 7 years, 3 months ago

It's not as simple as she makes it sound. Valerie Johnson-Powell is interested in one thing and one thing only and she'll twist the argument in favor of that interest. She's the union president for crying out loud. If she was concerned about harm to children the union would not be asking for more money, period.

Jeff Plinsky 7 years, 3 months ago

spiderd, you have it exactly backwards. When the LEA asks for more money, it is because we lose good teachers every year to the neighboring districts who can afford to pay more. Teachers, like anyone, will switch jobs if the money is better. In order to keep the best teachers in Lawrence, we need to at least try to offer competitive compensation. When Blue Valley, Olathe and Shawnee Mission reduce teacher salaries, then your argument will be valid. Until that time, not asking for better salaries means we are giving JoCo the opportunity to hire the best teachers away from us.

Losing good teachers is definitely not good for kids. Keeping good teachers, is.

spiderd 7 years, 3 months ago

I don't disagree with you. I just don't think those are the motivations behind her overly simplistic comments. They're deceiving and she knows enough to know that so I can only believe them to be intentionally deceiving.

Synjyn Smythe 7 years, 3 months ago

It'll be interesting to see how this plays out. Will the school board blindly follow a taskforce recommendation that's inconsistent with the reports of 2 of the 4 subcommittees of that same taskforce? Will school board members make a decision that actually makes sense in light of a $3 million deficit? How will President Minder vote?

salad 7 years, 3 months ago

The country is STILL waiting for all those patriotic conservatives to jump in there and take all these high pay teaching jobs with tons of vacation and no accountability..........crickets............crickets.......

KSManimal 7 years, 3 months ago

"...nearly half of teachers in the district were slated to get a pay increase beginning this month, ranging from a total of $250 to $700 for the remainder of the 2010-11 school year."

The wording here is a bit ambiguous. For the record, those figures of $250 - $700 are ANNUAL, not MONTHLY amounts.

Slightly less than half the teachers got a raise of between $250 - $700 for the year. Slightly more than half - the ones with the greatest experience and years of service - got nothing.

maudeandcecil 7 years, 3 months ago

To Synjyn Smythe: I wouldn't expect the reports to be consistent across subcommittees; they were investigating the issue from different angles. Consistency isn't all it's cracked up to be, in my opinion. At any rate, it seems you've studies the issue. What recommendations would you make? (I’m looking for a big & better idea and I honestly hope you have one.)

I followed your link, by the way and it’s sorta old news. I say forget whether or not Rich Minder has an investment in the Delaware Commons. He's very open about his personal bias for eastside schools, but I’m not convinced it plays out in his voting record. Case in point, he sat on the task force that recommended closing (Consolidation =Closure) up to three schools east of Iowa. At the end of the day, he did not speak up to say he disagreed with the recommendations as they related to eastside schools, rather he applauded task force members on their efforts and conclusions. Frankly, there are more compelling reasons than Delaware Commons or his time on the task force that make Rich a distraction. As board president, the way he facilitates meetings is maddening. Take for example, Monday’s Board meeting, he allowed for copious discussion of charter schools that no one in their right mind thinks is going anywhere anytime soon; and in so doing, he effectively limited the time available to discuss immediate & pressing issues ie) the task force recommendations and closure of Wakarusa Valley. By Monday night's end, the board had to rush the discussion/decision to post a Wakarusa Valley closure notice to the public.

Someone explain to me why Monday's agenda led with Dr. Doll’s charter school report, at all? I mean let's talk about more productive board meetings, better process- not Delaware Commons. Please, everyone pay attention to who you vote for in the upcoming election. What is their overall skill level? Can they formulate good questions and then prioritize their inquiries? Go to a forum...are they even articulate? If not, let's not vote for them this time.

Synjyn Smythe 7 years, 3 months ago

Actually, the consensus from the taskforce that apparently came originally from Ms. Hack, at least Mr. Neal had her explain it again on Feb. 21, that had consolidation of New York with Kennedy, assuming there is no mold, and consolidation of Hillcrest with Sunset was a reasonable remedy. There was no reason for that to be changed. However, Ms. Beeson's newly hatched, last minute suggestion to consolidate all SONS schools with a target on them trumped that prior consensus. The way a majority quickly voted for that, after there was no majority recommendation on closures for 8 previous months, actually makes one question the entire process. Who chose the taskforce members? Who would know they loyalties? Who would know who would ultimately vote whatever way SONS/Beeson proposed? Minder/Doll/Morgan! As for a school to close, that's easy: from a purely economic standpoint, you need $3 million and closing Cordley saves right at $2 million, and you avoid all that capital outlay to get it up to code for the 3 years prior to it being consolidated!

maudeandcecil 7 years, 3 months ago

Closing Cordley or any other single school is not going to get you $ 2mill in general funds savings for next year. More realistic numbers of 2012 savings from a closure of any one school are estimates between $250,000 to $500,000. The way the task force/district presents this information is confusing, to be sure.

You’re wrong on the final task force recommendations. I pasted language from the final report below. You’ll note the task force clearly suggestions consolidating NY/ Kennedy & Hillcrest/Sunset. They did include a caveat that if upon review the district determined another combination of 4 of the 6 schools named made more sense, they should go with that.

Language from final report: This bond shall be sufficient to accommodate consolidation of six central and east elementary schools into four elementary schools or possibly three. The six schools are Sunset Hill, Hillcrest, Pinckney, Cordley, Kennedy and New York. There was stronger consensus for combining the six schools into four schools rather than three, with the focus of discussion being a combination of Sunset Hill and Hillcrest in central Lawrence and Kennedy and New York in east Lawrence. However, the Task Force recognizes that the Board should consider many different variables including, but not limited to, budget realities, site conditions, cost of construction….

Cogito_Ergo_Es 7 years, 3 months ago

I'm sorry but this makes no sense. "This bond shall be sufficient to accommodate consolidation of six central and east elementary schools into four elementary schools or possibly three. The six schools are Sunset Hill, Hillcrest, Pinckney, Cordley, Kennedy and New York." If you consilidate 6 schools into four, you are only consolidating 4 and leaving the other two open! SH/HC and KD/NY become two nice new schools, and Cordley and Pinckney get left alone. They are no longer actually closed/consolidated at all. And all of this requires money/bond issues which are not guaranteed in this political climate or economy. And NONE of it helps us next year for the immediate budget crisis! This is really not a helpful recommendation for saving the 3 million right now! And Johnson-Powell had better be worried. "Her worry: If the district doesn’t close a school, there will be pressure to increase class sizes even more for next year." I guarantee you if they close the smallest school with the smallest savings they will without a doubt raise the student-teacher ratio. They money has to come from somewhere and if they choose to not take it from a reasonable building closure, they they are choosing to make every child in this district deal with it. Classes will be bigger and more crowded next year.

Synjyn Smythe 7 years, 3 months ago

Having attended and listened to the taskforce banter in late Jan., and again on Feb. 21, I'll trust the reliability of my memory of Mr. Neal's comments, Ms. Hack's comments and of the last-minute Beeson plan trumping the consensus reached at the meeting in late Jan. The language you quoted here does not address this history and is a mere regurgitation of the Beeson plan.

The numbers stated by at least one taskforce member on Feb. 14 and 21 were over $1.9 million savings if Cordley were closed, just over $1 million if Pinckney were closed, and only $497,000 if Wakarusa were closed, assuming full staffing there.

Cogito_Ergo_Es 7 years, 3 months ago

Of course Wakarusa has the smallest, most part-time staff in the district, definitely not fully staffed!

Richard Heckler 7 years, 3 months ago

An excellent public school system is economic growth material! Lawrence can live without new buildings.

Teacher Salary Support

Would you favor a sales tax increase to provide more money for Lawrence teacher salaries?

Of 5,198 voting 80% said yes. Remarkable

BUT instead of shooting for a tax increase I say this USD 497 district do two things to help out the school district.

Lend 10% of the existing 1995 sales money to the school district to keep existing schools open plus fix them instead of floating a new bond issue to build new schools. The existing bond debt is set to be retired this year so let us let it be retired. AND give teachers a raise.

In Addition:

USD 497 budgets $4-4.5 million to bus students. The district is charged at a daily rate depending on how many students use the transportation. Seem like a lot of money for part time bus transportation.

Parents would you be willing to find other means to get your students to school IF it meant keeping all the schools open,retaining important subject matter/programs and retaining a skilled teaching staff?

Think car pooling,family members ,walking and biking.

USD 497 says it needs $3 million. Can WE come up with $3 million? 75% of $4.5 million = $3,375,000.

An excellent public school system is economic growth material! New buildings are irrelevant!

Lawrence,Kansas needs to start talking about this.

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