‘Work your contract’: Lawrence teachers can’t strike, but they are cutting back in other ways

photo by: Elvyn Jones

In this file photo from Aug. 29, 2018, about 200 Lawrence school district teachers fill the boardroom of the school district's offices at a negotiation session between teachers union representatives and district officials.

Minutes after the Aug. 29 contract negotiations between the Lawrence school district and the Lawrence Education Association broke down, chief union negotiator David Reber told the approximately 200 teachers who had attended the meeting that, under state law, they could not strike. But he added an important caveat: Teachers could simply “work your contract.”

What Reber was urging teachers to do was to not work — without compensation — anything beyond the eight-hour days they are required to put in, according to the 2017-2018 master agreement between the union and the district. The agreement remains in effect since no contract has been approved for the current school year. That meant teachers would not volunteer to attend school open houses and would not participate in professional activities such as after-school committee meetings or parent-teacher conferences.

Indeed, many Lawrence teachers are now forgoing those types of duties while the district and the union remain at impasse over pay and other issues. Parents have started to notice, in some cases. The new strategy recently scuttled a planned open house for Liberty Memorial Central Middle School. Teachers at the school collectively agreed not to attend the school’s Sept. 6 open house, said LEA President Laurie Folsom. They instead posted notes on the doors of classrooms explaining their absence. In lieu of the planned open house, the district had an informational meeting on the district’s new student information software, PowerSchool.

Lawrence school board president Jessica Beeson said a number of parents gathered outside the school in support of the teachers during what was to be the open house.

Reber said limiting hours to the work day was a collective action available to teachers to put pressure on the district as both sides await an Oct. 10 date with a federal mediator, who will attempt to resolve the impasse. Salaries are at the heart of the differences between the district and the union. The union has asked for a $2,200 increase to the base salary paid to new teachers with no experience. That increase would be reflected in the step increases teachers receive for years of service and higher levels of education. The district has countered with a base increase offer of $500.

But there are also differences on staffing, teachers’ roles in student discipline and compensation for attendance at professional activities outside the duty day.

District teachers are paid two rates for work they do outside the duty day, Reber said. They are compensated at the professional rate of $21 an hour for such things as attending evening parent-teacher conferences and committee meetings on topics such as building improvements and equity issues, and for other staff meetings that take place after the normal work day. They also receive extra duty pay of $13 an hour for a host of activities they agree to take on, such as chaperoning dances or selling tickets at performances, Reber said.

The teachers’ presence at open houses is strictly voluntary and doesn’t fall into either category, Reber said. The union estimated that teachers provided $50,000 of uncompensated hours at the open houses at various schools in the weeks after school started. That participation in open houses ended when the district’s head negotiator, David Cunningham, who is also the district’s legal counsel and executive director of human resources, announced at the Aug. 29 meeting he would file paperwork with the U.S. Department of Labor requesting federal mediation.

In addition to skipping open houses, teachers are now demanding to know upfront if they will be compensated for evening parent-teacher conferences or committee meetings, Reber said. The current teacher contract states teachers will be compensated $21 an hour for professional work outside the duty day “with prior approval by the assistant superintendent of teaching and learning or his/her designee.”

The union is asking that language be modified to make compensation mandatory, Reber said.

“The problem with this language is that requests for payment can be and are regularly denied,” he said. “The district just assumes people will work for free anyway. The other problem with this language is that there are times where it isn’t known ahead of time that the meeting will go on longer than planned, so getting prior approval isn’t really possible.”

Reber said the union also is asking that the professional extra duty compensation rate be increased to $25 an hour.

Speaking for the district negotiating team at the Aug. 29 meeting, Cunningham said the union’s proposed language guaranteeing compensation for professional work outside the duty day would not be in the district’s best interest.

The district is paying teachers the professional rate for parent-teacher conferences about individualized education plans required for special education students and is reviewing on a case-by-case basis committee work that falls outside of the duty day, Cunningham told the Journal-World.

On Sept. 4, Samrie Devin, district human resources director, sent an email to all building principals and the union stating that teachers were to be compensated at the professional rate for attending special education parent-teacher conferences on individualized education plans held outside the duty day. The email also states building principals can extend the duty day by 30 minutes once each week and should schedule building committee meetings in that time.

The email’s clarification of special education parent-teacher conferences was appreciated, Reber said, but the union fears district enforcement of the policy will wane once the contract dispute is settled. The union is still requesting that the language of the contract be changed to guarantee professional pay for the conferences and committee work that falls outside the duty day.

The union’s work-your-hours stance does not mean forgoing grading student assignments or preparing lesson plans during evenings or weekends, Folsom and Reber said. That work is a given in the teaching profession and accepted among union membership, they said.

“I work at home and don’t know any teacher who doesn’t,” Folsom said. “But there is a difference in working from the comfort of your couch where you can look after your children or care for an elderly parent and taking time to attend a meeting at your place of work.”

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