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Speaking Truth to Power

In various venues and around the state, VEA members are standing up for public education.

Many of your colleagues are going public—taking to keyboards and podiums to speak up for students, educators and schools in letters to the editor and op-ed pieces in media outlets, as well as in speeches before local governing bodies. A sample of what they’re doing:

Two Important Questions
I was asked to speak tonight after asking two simple questions to my colleagues. “Why do most of you live outside the county?” The answers I got did not vary. They cannot afford to live where they work. In fact, more than 25 percent of Fairfax County school employees live outside of Fairfax County.

My second question to my colleagues was, “How many of you have a second job to make ends meet?” One co-worker with a child said without his second job, they wouldn’t be living in Fairfax County either. Many FCPS employees must work an extra job or two simply to afford the high cost of living in Northern Virginia. Personally, I know I couldn’t afford to live here if it weren’t for my husband’s two jobs supplementing my income.

In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama called us “nation-builders.” Do you truly believe that? Or are you simply paying us lip service during teacher appreciation week? Now you’re asking us to accept a salary that barely allows us to keep our noses above water. It’s appalling that the General Assembly has chosen to devastate our retirement fund. Teachers were putting up with the low salary for at least the promise of decent retirement—now now they have poor pay, poor retirement and increased demands to look forward too.

Members of the Fairfax County School Board, I charge you with giving us what we deserve as professionals. Until you do this, the teacher appreciation sentiments appear to be just lip service. Don’t feign support of public education when you won’t even ask the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors for the proper amount of funding to support your work force. Recognize the work that your employees do, the hours they’ve put in to completing and meeting all national, state and local mandates, and pay us what we deserve.

It is time to put your money where your mouth is; otherwise, it’s patronizing to hear you on the air touting that FCPS has the best teachers, absent of the tag line that indicates you don’t pay them a third of what they are worth.

 --Lauren-Ashley Villa of the Fairfax Education Association, speaking to the county’s school board

Doing More With Less
According to the Virginia Department of Education, per-pupil expenditures in Henry County were $9883 for fiscal year 2009. For fiscal year 2011, VDoE reported those expenditures at $9169— $714 less per student in two years, while gas and utility costs and food prices continued to soar. Teacher salaries remained stagnant, positions were eliminated and class sizes grew.

 --Dorothy Carter, president of the Henry County Education Association, in the Martinsville Bulletin

The Truth About Continuing Contracts
Teachers currently earn a continuing contract after a successful three-year probationary period. They are still evaluated regularly and subject to dismissal if they are ineffective. Continuing contract ensures that a great teacher cannot be dismissed for refusing to change a student's grade or let go in favor of an inexpensive, younger teacher. Continuing contract laws in Virginia were passed decades ago because arbitrary dismissals, nepotism, and political favoritism undermined the goal of providing the best possible teacher for each classroom. While there may be some ineffective teachers in public schools, at least locally, there are already policies in place that are being exercised to remove them.

 --Michael Strawderman of the Harrisonburg Education Association, in the (Harrisonburg) Daily News Record

The Truth About Teachers
I continue to be amazed by some of the general public’s obvious misconceptions about the teaching profession. Why would they not know that we are evaluated yearly and required to provide our own funds and time for continuing our teacher licenses?

Our pay scale is based on position, number of years invested, and type of degree held. The supply and demand of teachers constantly fluctuates based on budget constraints and what the state allows for maximum students-to-teacher ratio.

The simple theory of supply and demand does not apply to the achievements and successes experienced daily between teachers and students. Each year, we face a new group of young minds, who come with very different backpacks. Some backpacks are filled adequately with all the tools and social development that allow [students] to receive knowledge readily. Other students in the same class have very few tools in their backpacks. Many of our children are now coming with no tools, including those essential social and emotional tools necessary to learn with self-confidence and to develop those higher-level thinking abilities. Is the colleague with the group of students with partial backpacks a lesser educator because not all her students met the benchmark? No. With these challenges, there cannot be a monetary reward based solely on student test scores.

Responsibility for success relies on the teacher, the student, the parent, the private sector, and effective administrative leadership.

 --Elizabeth G. Jens of the Chesterfield Education Association, in the Chesterfield Observer

Invest in What’s Important
We need to invest in smaller class sizes. I had classes of over 30 students last year, and I am far from alone in the county. This creates stressful situations with classroom management, plus having to grade 30+ papers, labs and projects for each of five classes! If class sizes are smaller, students can receive more individualized attention.

Everyone must be held accountable for student success. Teachers must work to motivate and reach every student; parents and families need to instill a love of learning in students; and elected officials need to give our students and teachers the tools and resources they need.

--Jennifer Rokasky of the Prince William Education Association, in Inside NoVa

Invest in What’s Important, Vol. 2
Budgets are about priorities. This year the board faces daunting new demands that make this budget more difficult in some ways than the last three combined. More cuts will hurt. We have already trimmed $40 million over the last three years, over 300 positions cut, but impressively with no pink slips…

We are running a school division in 2012 with less money than in 2006, but with more students and higher standards. Unsurprisingly, class sizes have ballooned to the point that classroom employees are stretched beyond thin, and the stress is showing. People are wearing out…

Education Week ranked Virginia schools the 4th best in the nation recently, and we rank 3rd in the number of students earning a 3 or better on Advanced Placement tests. We know that Spotsylvania is one of the best school systems in our state. In most industries, such success would lead to more resources, but the opposite is happening. Let me be clear, the Spotsylvania Education Association knows the fault for that is not with the school board, as they have no revenue authority. It does not even completely rest with the Board of Supervisors. Year after year, Richmond is reducing the money it invests in public education and expecting the local governments to pick up the tab. All already exceed the Standards of Quality set by the General Assembly. I have news for them: If everyone in the state spends more than you say is needed, your definition of “quality” is inadequate. This year, the GA is underfunding the SOQs by over $300 million…

While our county is receiving more money from the state, over $3.4 million of that must be spent on increased VRS payments, and now Governor McDonnell wants localities to up their contributions. We also see other costs have risen thanks to inflation and health care increases… 

Salaries have been frozen when you measure their purchasing power for too long. The proposed 2.5 percent COLA is welcome news. I know each of you have stated you want to provide salary increases. You know our staff becomes more valuable every year thanks to our experience and the 38 hours of high quality professional development we receive. You cannot put children first when you put educators last. Many newer employees have never seen a step increase, and might wonder if they ever will in their career at this rate.

--Peter Pfotenhauer, president of the Spotsylvania Education Association, speaking to the county’s school board

Parents Have a Part to Play
Teachers cannot make needed progress with students if parents do not provide a place and time to do homework as well as get the student up and to school on time with a respectful attitude.

It's not enough to send children back to school in new outfits. Parents need a plan when kids say, "I have no homework" — provide a library book or workbook purchased at a book store to ensure homework time is set aside every night. The multiplication tables as well as comprehension strategies need to be practiced and learned at home.

Teachers make a convenient target to blame for lack of progress. But parents must reinforce and provide practice every school night if students are to excel. Parents need to join teachers to provide the "fix" that will ensure the success of their children.

--Rosemary Gaskin Morton, retired Richmond Education Association member, in the Richmond Times-Dispatch

‘Tenure’ Doesn’t Exist
We support a due process procedure that results in high-quality instruction for students, and that is fair to teachers. Currently, teachers have a three-year probationary period to prove themselves. Only after a school administrator determines that a teacher has successfully passed this probation does that teacher earn continuing contract.

Once teachers gain continuing contract status, they still are evaluated regularly and must show evidence of continued professional growth. What continuing contract does is provide a due process procedure in which allegations against an educator can be tested for their accuracy and truthfulness.

The word “tenure,” which is not used in Virginia law, is interpreted by many as “a job for life.” That is not something we have in Virginia. Every year, underperforming teachers are non-renewed or dismissed. “Guaranteed lifetime employment” for a teacher in the commonwealth is a myth.

--Michael Hairston, president of the Fairfax Education Association, in The Washington Post

Check Your Sources
Regarding [a previous letter-writer’s] statement about teachers’ unions, I wonder where he gets his information. Has he ever talked to a member of a teachers’ union? Our unions support due process rights for all employees. Should I assume that [he] does not think teachers deserve due process? Teachers’ unions do not get to evaluate their members, so they are hardly in a position to judge who is effective and who is not. If a school system cannot demonstrate that a teacher is ineffective, upon what criteria should it base its decision to fire one?

[The writer] proposes that we pay “higher compensation for those performing well.” Should I assume that he would pay those not performing well a lower salary, yet leave them in the classroom? If so, he is far more tolerant of unsatisfactory teaching than any teachers’ union.

As for accepting lower pay in order to have summers off or in exchange for a Cadillac retirement or health plan, one need only read the newspapers to know that is not the case. Retirement is modest, and teachers contribute greatly to the premiums of their health plans.

--Donald Wilms of the Chesterfield Education Association, in the Chesterfield Observer

Salary Stagnation
Frederick County Public Schools employees are not employees of the state with regard to salaries. Our locality is responsible for our pay. This means we will not benefit from the 3 percent one-time bonus state employees will receive in December.

Also, the four-cent tax increase has not been allocated by the Frederick County Board of Supervisors. So, as I am writing this, FCPS employees will be making the same salaries as five years ago.

Yes, if you look at our pay scales, you may be misled into thinking we had a raise, but that is the 5 percent the county was paying into our retirement. The state required them to give us these funds to offset the fact we will now do our own contributions.

Employees of FCPS have not had a salary increase or received a step on the pay scale for the last four years. I do not think it greedy or unrealistic for individuals dealing with growing class sizes, limited resources, and ever-changing requirements to receive salaries representative of their education and years of service.

--Joy Kirk, president of the Frederick County Education Association, in the Winchester Star

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