My Turn: Contract takes district in wrong direction

Posted: Wednesday, September 05, 2001

I oppose the contract with the Juneau Education Association because it is clearly not in the best interests of our students.

If this contract is approved we will be unable to address the many unmet needs within the Juneau School District. For example, I attended an elementary school site council last year where at virtually every meeting members requested additional resources for emerging-limited English-proficient students. This was their top priority transmitted to the School Board. Furthermore, as chair of the board's Program Evaluation Committee we spent a year investigating middle school climate, our recommendation was for additional counseling staff for both middle schools. Other concerns include the limited number of courses at the high school, half-time librarians, pupil-teacher ratio, remedial and gifted needs, etc.

The Juneau School District is the recipient of additional annual state funding of about $650,000. Unfortunately, the new teacher contract costs an additional $1.5 million over the next two years. Every additional cent from the state (plus other monies) will be used for teacher compensation.

The teacher contract provides for approximately 5.5 percent salary increases over two years. The beginning and top salaries on the schedule are the highest of our peer school districts (Anchorage, Mat-Su, Kenai, etc. as well as Southeast districts). The following salaries are based on the second year of the contract. Someone receiving an undergraduate degree with no experience starts at $3,732 per month for the nine-month year. A new M.A.T. grad starts at $4,174. The top salary is $7,188. Even after three retirement incentive programs in the last seven years, approximately 30 percent of our teaching staff is at or near the top salary. Additionally, dozens of teachers receive anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars during the school year for participation in coaching, clubs, theater and musicals performances and other activities.

It is common knowledge that one of the problems with American public education is the short school year and short school day. This was reinforced by reports from the National Education Commission on Time and Learning. In the early and mid-1990s the Juneau School Board, over several contracts, increased the school year from 180 to 183 days. This contract now reduces the year to 182 days. Please note that a 182-day year translates into about 160-165 days of actual classroom instruction.

The teacher contract day remains at 7.5 hours, which includes lunch, prep time, breaks, etc. In reality teachers spend on average about 4.5 hours daily in classroom instruction.

I am disappointed that the new contract actually reduces the school year and leaves the contract day unchanged, while at the same time transfers every additional cent the state gave the district to teacher compensation. I am disheartened that we remain unable to remedy a myriad of needs that affect all of our students.

Unfortunately, in recent years students have become to the education industry what passengers are to the railroad industry. Both systems remain mired in Byzantine work rules, with students and passengers receiving less than stellar service

I am aware that simply increasing the length of the day and year will not turn the district around. However, it is an important step in the right direction. Some of the issues that are key to educational reform remain improving the quality of those entering teaching, dramatically restructuring the certification-credential-teacher training process, and replacing guaranteed lifetime employment with job security.

With a budget approaching $40 million you would think Juneau students deserve something better. Perhaps the best they can hope for is state educrats continuing to "dumb down" the various state-mandated tests while politicians delay implementation of consequences. At this rate we should be able to guarantee that every student passes these exams in about another decade and we can congratulate ourselves, even if our students perform lower than many students from the non-industrialized world.

In the 1970s and 1980s I joked that meaningful structural changes in American public education would occur when the Berlin Wall and the U.S.S.R. were gone, i.e., it was unlikely to occur in my lifetime. I guess the joke is on me.

Alan Schorr is a member of the Juneau Board of Education.

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