SOUND OFF: Local teachers need support

The three “Rs.” You probably know these as “Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic,” a catchy way to remember the basics of what should be taught in public schools. But as America faces a shortage of two million teachers in the next decade, we need to look at a new set of three “Rs”: “Recruit, Retain and Reward.” And we need to focus on our own community’s responsibility in attracting, keeping, and compensating teachers.

The Whidbey News-Times has reported the Oak Harbor School District’s budgetary process and steadily declining fund balance. Kathy Jones, school board president, seeks a $3 million nest egg as opposed to the projected $685,000 in the 2002-2003 $40 million budget. However, as a different example, Shoreline School District has agreed to supplement the pay and health care benefits of its teachers, despite the fact that its ending fund balance is projected at $176,000.

Oak Harbor Education Association believes that our district, like Shoreline, can adjust priorities and assumptions to meet the needs of our community’s 353 teachers, counselors, and educational specialists. The OHEA continues to advocate for a local focus on ways of improving general compensation and job satisfaction including increasing supplemental pay, reducing health care costs, and raising substitute pay.

The new three “Rs” haven’t been a priority in Oak Harbor. A recent analysis of Oak Harbor School District’s budget reveals other priorities — from computers to administrative salaries to capital projects to class size reduction. These are not unimportant. Class size particularly remains a top concern of all educators, especially those classroom teachers who continue to have significantly more students in their classrooms when colleagues teaching the same grade in another school have fewer. However, without adequate space to house new classrooms, class size reductions cannot be effective. And, it’s important to note, class size reduction monies can be spent on salaries and benefits.

A beginning teacher in Oak Harbor earns $28,858 for a 182-day contract. Of course, it should go without saying that these are the days the district pays — not the days that teachers routinely work to actually do the job. Some communities have chosen to support levies that supplement the pay and benefits of their teachers. Health care costs are an escalating burden. A married teacher with a child will pay between $350 and $650 in uncovered medical insurance premiums each month. Added to this burden are college loans and the costs of 150 hours of mandatory training every five years.

It should come as no surprise that one out of every three new teachers will leave teaching within the first five years, mostly because of inadequate pay and benefits but also because of workplace dissatisfaction — ineffective student discipline, lack of administrative support, absence of teacher participation in decision-making, and failure to recognize excellence and extra effort.

A recent National Education Association survey reported that, when adjusted for inflation, teachers’ salaries remained stagnant during the decade of 1991-2001, increasing by a total of only three percent. During the same period, school revenues and total expenditures increased significantly, thereby showing that recruiting, retaining, and rewarding teachers has not been a priority nationwide. As the president of NEA, Bob Chase, recently said, “Nothing has a more profound effect on a child’s achievement than the quality of his or her teacher, and it’s hard to convince someone to stay in the classroom when the salary is so low.”

Generally, the Oak Harbor School District enjoys stable labor relations with the OHEA. That’s not the case in other districts. About 60 school districts are negotiating teacher contracts. Five districts — Northshore, Issaquah, Bellevue, Everett and Snohomish are in various states of strike preparation, with another five contemplating job actions later this year. Additionally, Washington Education Association, representing 74,000 members in 296 school districts, is actively organizing a one-day, statewide walkout on Jan. 14 to coincide with Gov. Locke’s State of the State speech. Then, in February and depending on the action or inaction of the Legislature, the WEA will be ready to authorize a multi-local, sustained work stoppage in order to lobby for better pay and benefits. Oak Harbor teachers will then have to decide whether or not to support the statewide efforts.

Oak Harbor, your teachers ask for your support.

Peter Szalai and June Zacharias are co-presidents of Oak Harbor Education Association.

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