Closing costs 

Shuttering schools and shorting teachers

A fifth-grade classroom in Rattlesnake School probably resembles every elementary classroom that any child ever set foot in: a map on a wall, a fish tank near the door, a model ship and books and more books stuffed into every nook and cranny. This particular room is teacher Pat Thane’s classroom, new to him as of this school year. After Missoula County Public Schools board trustees voted last year to address the district’s budget woes by closing three schools, Thane tore down his classroom at Prescott, which closed, and set it up again at Rattlesnake School. Over the course of the summer, Thane, one of the district’s most senior teachers, spent more than 60 hours packing and moving more than 80 boxes, according to copies of his time sheets. Missoula County Public Schools administrators, however, have no intention of compensating Thane—or any other teacher—for their total time spent enacting the board’s decision by doing the physical work of moving.

The Missoula Education Association (MEA), a teacher’s union representing nearly 700 teachers in Missoula, is asking that the district reconsider.

“I think they made a mistake or at least overlooked paying the teachers properly for this move,” says MEA President David Severson.

In early October, MEA filed a grievance on behalf of Thane, requesting “payment in full for hours submitted.” (Thane directed all questions to Severson.)

Lately, Severson says, morale among teachers has been low, and the union is filing more and more complaints.

“I’m really convinced that why we’re filing more grievances is because of our economic state,” he says. “When budgets get tight, you have to make cuts, people try to pick up slack more…and they get less tolerant about, ‘Well, I’ll just chip in, I’ll do a better job with less.’ At a certain point, the district…has to cut some corners. And in cutting those corners, they may be violating the [union] contract, at least in some person’s opinion.”

So far, Thane’s is the only grievance to reach the level of arbitration; the board heard his complaint in mid-December. During the hearing, Thane was asked if he had obtained permission to move, according to meeting minutes. He was asked if he had authority to move.

Then he was asked a more telling question by MEA grievance chairwoman Jan Lieber: “Based on your 32 years of experience, would it occur to you to ask for permission to get part of your job done?”

In closing statements, Lieber said that the district “assumed teachers would bear the burden of closure.”

She continued: “Teachers are no longer being silent about moving with no compensation.”

The board vote was tied at 2-2. The parties are now seeking an arbitrator.

Severson estimates that between 40 and 50 teachers packed their classrooms up into boxes and changed schools this summer. More and more, Severson says, teachers absorb such incidental costs of public education. They take more students into their classrooms. They fund-raise for field trips—usually funded by the district in the past, he says. They frequently purchase school supplies with their own money.

“When the choice is [either] something gets cut that hurts kids, or the teacher has to work harder to provide something for the kids, the teacher will work harder,” Severson says. “There are those in our state who have taken advantage of those teachers’ goodwill, and it has to stop.”

For their part, district administrators believe they were being generous by paying teachers a flat rate—three days’ pay—to move.

“There’s no provisions in the contract for paying teachers to move,” says Larry Johnson, the district’s director of human resources and labor relations. And it’s the district’s job to mind the bottom line, he says.

“A major consideration from the district’s point of view, of course, is budget,” Johnson says. “So that’s one of the reasons why the district would be reluctant to say to teachers, ‘You have a blank check, how many hours you put in, we’ll pay you.’”

Trustee chairwoman Rosemary Harrison, who voted to support the administration during the grievance hearing, echoed Johnson’s statement. Offering to pay teachers for three days of moving, she believes, was more than administrators were obligated to offer by the union contract’s terms.

“[Administrators] felt like this was a nice gesture,” Harrison says. The district could have offered less, says Superintendent Jim Clark: “I could have said one [day].”

Trustee Carol Bellin had visited Thane’s Prescott classroom before the school closed. “You could feel the depth of his experience,” she says. “…How do you describe the value, the quality that somehow emanates from that age and experience?”

She voted in favor of paying Thane for the hours he submitted.

“I did feel it was rather an indignity that he was denied his request and that it had to come to such a level of grievance for such a senior teacher,” she says.

No one can predict how the grievance will eventually be resolved. Still, it reveals plenty about the day-to-day ramifications of inadequately funded education, which state legislators are working to resolve: Somewhere in Missoula, a teacher is picking up the slack.

kszpaller@missoulanews.com

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