After five unsuccessful contract negotiations this summer and two mediations in impasse — a stalemate in which teachers are without a contract — the Shawnee Mission School District and the National Education Association – Shawnee Mission (NEA-SM) are seeking outside assistance to resolve the issue.
The NEA-SM filed for fact-finding, one of the last resorts for contract negotiation since teacher strikes are illegal in Kansas, with the Kansas Department of Labor on Sept. 27.
While teachers aren’t allowed to picket, they are wearing red on Wednesdays and not working extra hours to show they are united on the issue. They are walking into school together on Tuesdaysat their contractual arrival time of 7:20 a.m, instead of many teachers’ usual arrival time of 7 a.m.
“In this building we have so many dedicated teachers that prepare labs, work with kids before school, that a lot of them are willing to give their time [to students],” Fishman said. “We specifically agreed that we would come in as a group at 7:20 on Tuesdays and not work with kids [before 7:20]… to let the public know that…the contract that was offered by the school district, even though they got millions from the state that was supposed to go to the teachers, [doesn’t meet our needs].”
During the fact-finding process, the district and NEA-SM must mutually decide on a fact-finder from a list of five suggestions from the state, then choose a date for a public hearing where each side will bring witnesses and present their facts. The fact-finder will put together a report from the information at this hearing which will be presented during a private discussion between the two parties, where the parties hope to come to an agreement.
The teachers have and will continue to work under their 2018-19 contracts until the hearing, where they will discuss their contractual priorities: increased salary, smaller classes and decreased hours.
During mediation, NEA-SM proposed a three-year contract with a 2% base salary increase in the first year and a 1.5% base salary increase for the next two years. They also suggested lightening the workload for teachers by changing high school and eventually middle school teachers’ instruction to five periods instead of the current six and reducing elementary school class sizes, according to NEA-SM president Linda Sieck.
According to Sieck, the district countered their proposed contract with a two-year contract which stated a 1% salary increase the first year, 1.25% increase the second year and covering any potential increase in health care costs.
“So they didn’t make any movement on salary and they didn’t address class loads and class sizes,” Sieck said. “So at that point, we just felt like we weren’t really even negotiating.”
The district’s Chief Communications Manager David Smith said they were unable to fulfill all the terms of the teachers’ proposed contract because they spent over $5 million of a $9.6 million state grant on transportation, utilities, new buildings such as the aquatic center and other necessities.
“We’re trying really hard to take care of our teachers, but we have to do it in a financially sustainable way,” Smith said. “This year we’ve got an additional $9.6 million. Next year, I believe the amount we expect to get is under $3 million…Whatever we do this year is what we do from now on. So, we can’t do something that we can’t sustain over time.”
The proposal to move high school and middle school teachers from six periods to five periods and reduce elementary school classes by two students would cost the district more than the remaining $4.5 million dollars they have after spending the $5 million, according to Smith.
Sieck believes the district should be investing more of the grant into raises and hiring new teachers since, according to Sieck, the State Department of Education recommends spending at least half of the state grant on teachers.
“Our bargaining unit has said we’ll take a lesser percentage of increase if you’re hiring more teachers and making our class sizes smaller,” Sieck said. “[The district is] choosing to spend that money in other ways…If reducing class size and hiring more teachers is important to them, [they should] allocate the money there. That might mean [they] have to cut something else, but their message to us is that’s not important.”
There has also been speculation of the district putting some of the $9.6 million grant into reserves, or the district’s “savings account,” according to english teacher Samantha Feinberg. However, the 2019-20 budget reports presented at the May 13 board meeting show no money was added to the reserves and SMSD board member Heather Ousley reinforced this at the Oct. 14 board meeting.
Working under last year’s contract for the past three months has proven detrimental to over 40% of teachers who are currently earning less money this year than last year, according to Sieck. Teachers in a dead zone on the SMSD salary schedule — years where some teachers do not receive a step raise — received a 1% stipend in addition to their base salary in the 2018-19 school year. So this year, without the stipend, teachers working under the same contract are earning less money.
Teachers wearing red to symbolize “red for Ed” crowded the Oct. 14 board meeting, many even standing against the wall due to the unavailability of seats, to voice their opinions on the terms for the new contract and show they are united on the issue.
NEA-SM building representative and social studies teacher Stephen Laird spoke at the meeting, emphasizing the problem of increased workload and the proposed five-period day for teachers.
“My first year here, most teachers were teaching five periods,” Laird said. “Then [in my fourth year] the district went to a policy where all high school teachers would teach six, all middle school teachers would teach six. One added class doesn’t sound like a lot, but the average class size is 28-30 kids. So that’s another 30 essays you have to grade, 30 relationships you need to build. So there are some teachers in this building who have 200 to 210 students.”
English teacher Samantha Feinberg agrees with Laird’s position that teachers are overworked with six periods. During her time in the district since 2005, she’s had to substantially alter her teaching style to accommodate the increase in students. Feinberg has had to simplify assignments to make them easier to grade in hopes of shortening the wait time between the due date and feedback.
“My initial question used to be ‘What is the most creative and memorable way I can do this,’ because if it’s memorable then students will take it with them,” Feinberg said. “Now, I just kind of think more from an efficiency mindset, like ‘How can I make sure that I get this out to as many people and how can I make sure that when it gets back to me I can efficiently account for it?’ So, we’ve lost some creativity, some intellectual thought in the name of efficiency [to be] able to check boxes.”
Smith indicated that SMSD teachers have similar workloads to teachers in other districts, in addition to an average salary of $69,000 — one of the highest in the state, according to Kansas Education Data Reporting.
“What our teachers are dealing with for class sizes are very similar to what other teachers in other districts have to deal with,” Smith said. “Over the past five years, if you look at the average teacher salary, they got [on average] a 4% raise…And that was during difficult economic times…We have said very clearly that our teachers are the highest paid teachers in the state.”
However, Laird disagrees and said that SMSD teachers deal with a greater workload than many other districts in the area.
“For a lot of us, especially in the high schools, it’s not necessarily the 1% [salary] difference, it’s the work, at least with me,” Laird said. “That’s what I spoke about [at the board meeting], getting that reduction from six to five, which [is what] it is in Olathe, Blue Valley, KCK, that’s the expectation, not the expectation, that’s the metropolitan standard.”
Hocker Grove Middle School social studies teacher Lisa Debey also said she has not been fairly compensated through the years at the Oct. 14 board meeting. Over the last 10 years, Debey’s contract pay has increased by about $4,000, while the consumer price index has increased by 19.7%, meaning her pay should have increased by about $11,000 to remain equitable.
“This $7,200 deficit is compounded by the fact that both my husband and I have decided to make our careers in Shawnee Mission School District,” Debey said at the board meeting. “We have lost almost $15,000 in spending power over the last 10 years…Additional work and shrinking pay is not sustainable. I heard talking about increased utility costs [for the district], we have those too, but our pay isn’t keeping track.”
Through the mediation and contract negotiations, the district and NEA-SM have come to a tentative agreement about the requirements of teacher work days. According to Sieck, the district asked to make professional development days blackout days, meaning teachers would not be allowed to use them as extended vacation days. In return, teachers asked to be able to take these work days outside of school, so they can work from home or a coffee shop since their work is online-accessible.
Although Laird and Sieck expect to come to an agreement during fact-finding, there are still precautions in place if they don’t — they can accept a unilateral contract from the board, keep working under the 2018-19 contract or quit without the usual repercussion of a $1,000 charge.