Disappointed teachers address school board

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 21, 1999

Austin’s teachers aren’t happy that negotiations with the school district have reached the point of needing a mediator.

Thursday, October 21, 1999

Austin’s teachers aren’t happy that negotiations with the school district have reached the point of needing a mediator. They made that clear at the Austin Board of Education meeting Wednesday.

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More than 120 teachers sat at tables and lined the back of the Ellis Middle School Commons at the board meeting. There to show support for Austin Education Association president Cheri Stageberg, the crowd gave a standing ovation after Stageberg addressed the board on the issue of the ongoing contract negotiations between the district and the teachers’ union.

Stageberg spoke of the teachers’ disappointment at the pace of negotiations and the district’s need to attract the best teachers. She also addressed the issue of the salary schedule.

"To date, your best offer would have 185 of Austin’s finest – teachers currently on the top step of the salary schedule – receiving an average raise of $354 over what they were making last year," the union president told the board. "At that rate, Austin will be hard pressed to not only attract quality teachers, but also to retain the good teachers that are currently working with our children in this nationwide trend of teacher shortage."

Pete DeMars, who has taught math at Austin High School for 30 years, is one of the teachers who would get a $354 raise with the district’s last offer. DeMars said this year’s negotiations have left the teachers feeling like the board is telling them one thing and doing another.

"I think I can speak for some, especially those in my age and tenure group," DeMars said. "On the one hand, we’re told what a great teaching staff we are, and I truly believe that. Then you turn around and there’s this very minimal amount being offered … It doesn’t match up."

Aside from the fact of working without a contract, which he pointed out was disconcerting in any industry, DeMars said that contradiction and the continuing lack of settlement "grates on people more and more."

"I don’t see my fellow teachers hanging their heads and kicking the dirt on the way into school … nor do I think any of the kids would notice a drop in morale," he said. "Our teachers are too professional and like what they do too much to let the negotiations affect their work. But the frustration builds."

That frustration will almost certainly continue to build – at least until Nov. 4 when the state appointed mediator is scheduled to arrive. Although the two negotiating teams meet once before that on Oct. 26, chief AEA negotiator Jeff Ollman expressed hopes that the mediator would jump-start the negotiations again.

While the board’s only official response to Stageberg’s delegation was to thank her and her coworkers for attending the meeting, board vice-chairman David Simonson addressed the issue after the meeting.

"People have to remember we’re working for the same thing the teachers are," Simonson said. "It’s the legislature that decides how much money we get as a district. The board decides how that money is allotted. Here we’ve tried to get the lowest class sizes possible, but that leaves us with more instructors and lowers your ability to pay at a higher rate."

DeMars wondered aloud whether it was nerves about the referendum passing that was making the school board fearful.

"I fully support the referendum," the long-time teacher said, "but whether it passes or not, people will still be going on about the job of educating."