Over 200 teachers rallied outside and in North High School, where the Wichita school board was meeting Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. The teachers were protesting wage freezes and teacher workloads. (Video by Fernando Salazar/The Wichita Eagle) fsalazar@wichitaeagle.com
Over 200 teachers rallied outside and in North High School, where the Wichita school board was meeting Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. The teachers were protesting wage freezes and teacher workloads. (Video by Fernando Salazar/The Wichita Eagle) fsalazar@wichitaeagle.com

Education

Wichita teachers ‘need relief yesterday,’ district officials told

By Suzanne Perez Tobias

stobias@wichitaeagle.com

September 26, 2016 10:57 AM

UPDATED September 27, 2016 06:30 AM

Wichita teachers are overworked, underpaid and “need relief yesterday,” union leaders told district leaders on Monday.

“I am so tired of seeing your employees in tears,” said Steve Wentz, president of United Teachers of Wichita. “Ten-, 12-, 13-hour days, evenings, weekends – this isn’t an endeavor that’s sustainable, folks.

“Teachers are drowning in work, much of it that isn’t even required by law or contract,” he said. “These folks here tonight need a commitment that this will stop now.”

Wentz’s comments followed a rally outside North High School, which drew more than 200 teachers holding signs and chanting “Enough is enough” and “We want respect.” That capped a union-organized “Contract Day,” during which teachers were urged to work only the hours required in their contract – no more, no less – to illustrate how much teachers do during their off-hours.

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Peggy Warren, a teacher at Hadley Middle School, held a sign with the union’s recent mantra: “Have you had enough yet?” She said raises or a reduction in workload for Wichita teachers are overdue.

“We do a lot of work, which we love, for these amazing kids here in Wichita, but we should be compensated for it,” Warren said. “Money could be shifted. There are things that aren’t as necessary as holding onto quality teachers.”

Gina Brillhart, a teacher at Southeast High School, fought back tears as she addressed the Board of Education on Monday. She said she loves teaching but had to take a second job “to keep my head above water with the rising cost of just living.”

More discouraging, she said, is what she called “rapidly decaying morale” among teachers.

“It seems every crisis has been solved on the backs of the teachers and those on the front lines, with the teachers who are loyal to (USD) 259 being hit the hardest,” she said.

“Teachers are in survival mode. I am in survival mode – both personally and professionally. … I ask that you listen to what your teachers are saying and take it to heart.”

Board members said they value teachers but have been challenged by rising costs and tightening budgets.

Joy Eakins said a contract proposal presented as the district’s “best and final offer” early in negotiations was intended as a show of support for teachers.

“The intention wasn’t to railroad the union, but the intention was to try to bring something early and good and not bicker over a half-percent or 1 percent,” Eakins said. “To bring that forward and offer it because it was August, and I … was hopeful that we could get to an agreement so teachers wouldn’t have this on their plate this year when school started.”

Contract talks between the district and union have stalled after a mediation session ended without agreement on a contract for the current school year. Teachers currently are working under the terms of their 2015-16 contract.

Wentz said his organization shares some of the blame for teachers’ current conditions.

“For too long, UTW did not ask the hard, difficult questions that keep institutions honest and accountable,” Wentz said. “The desire to avoid conflict was greater than the desire to discover the truth. I’m here to tell you those days are over.”

‘Contract Day’

Earlier on Monday, teachers across the district started their workday a little later than usual, many of them walking in to schools together as a show of solidarity for the union-organized “Contract Day” demonstration.

“More than the financial part of it, we just feel very disrespected,” said Curtis Wilson, a second-grade teacher at Franklin Elementary School.

'Contract Day' for Wichita teachers

About 20 teachers from Franklin Elementary School in Wichita walked in to school together Monday morning as part of a districtwide demonstration designed to illustrate how much teachers do in off-hours for no pay. (Sept. 26, 2016)

stobias@wichitaeagle.com

“A lot of us have stuck with the district for many years, and the only bump we get is longevity (pay), but that’s been frozen I don’t know how long.

“We are just really frustrated and just really exhausted mentally and emotionally that the superintendent and the board is not looking at it through the glasses that we wear.”

At Franklin Elementary, near Douglas and Seneca, about 20 teachers gathered in a parking lot just east of the school and walked in together about 15 minutes before the morning bell.

Under the terms of the teacher contract, Wichita teachers are required to work 7.5 hours per day, including lunch.

The contract requires teachers to “be present in and around the building for a minimum of 10 minutes before and after the school day” and that teachers “shall be guaranteed at least one 40-minute, duty-free lunch period per day.”

The Wichita teachers contract requires teachers to “be present in and around the building for a minimum of 10 minutes before and after the school day” and that teachers “shall be guaranteed at least one 40-minute, duty-free lunch period per day.”

Shirley Crosby, an intervention teacher at Franklin, said she usually helps monitor lines in the school cafeteria during breakfast – a volunteer position because “we don’t have any money to pay for that,” she said.

“Otherwise, there’s nobody there to do it, and I just feel like our kids should be safe,” Crosby said.

She skipped that duty on Monday and planned to leave school shortly after the afternoon bell, even though it likely would mean catching up on planning and paperwork later.

“I was here this past weekend,” Crosby said, smiling. “Most of us usually are.”

Wentz told teachers gathered at Franklin on Monday that he appreciated their participation in the union’s first-ever Contract Day.

“It’s time we’re not just heard and listened to, but it’s time for some action,” Wentz said.

Elsewhere on Monday, several teachers at East High School gathered in the gym foyer for coffee and conversation before heading to their classrooms.

History teacher Larry Smith said he usually arrives at East around 6:30 a.m. – an hour and a half before the morning bell – to finalize lesson plans and respond to parents’ e-mails because there’s not enough time during the school day.

Smith said teachers’ workload has increased substantially over the past several years as the district has launched new initiatives that require more planning, paperwork and data tracking.

“Everything that gets added sounds like a great idea, and maybe it is a great idea,” Smith said. “One at a time it might be OK, but all together it just gets to be too much.”

Some teachers opt out

Some teachers opted not to participate in Monday’s demonstration, saying the effort unfairly pointed blame at district leaders for what they said is a statewide failure to support public education.

Darham Rogers, a history teacher and cross-country coach at East High, posted a lengthy explanation on his Facebook page Sunday saying he supports the union’s overall mission but would not participate in what he called a “publicity stunt.”

Rogers said he planned to start work at his normal time and have his classroom available over lunch to a student who comes in sometimes to work on homework.

“My room is the only quiet place he can go during lunch to get his work done. Am I going to turn him away … because I have a duty-free 40-minute period for lunch? Absolutely not,” Rogers wrote. “Do I expect to be compensated for that time? NO.”

Rogers, a UTW member, said state lawmakers are to blame for the district’s financial situation and that Monday’s strategy could further hamper contract negotiations and divide teachers.

A parent reacts

Rachel Herman, whose son attends Franklin Elementary, said she wasn’t aware of the Contract Day initiative until she saw teachers walking together to an east entrance of the school on Monday morning.

A few minutes later, she walked her son Shawn to his kindergarten classroom and left with two younger children in a stroller.

“The whole situation is just more sad to me than anything,” Herman said. “I know it’s out of the teachers’ control, so that’s the hard part.”

A recent cost-cutting measure that shortened the school year but lengthened the day has been difficult for her son and his classmates, Herman said.

“He doesn’t have that attention span, you know? He’s little, and so it’s the children that are being affected by these things, not all of us.”

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias