Contract negotiations between the Frederick County School Board and the Frederick County Teachers Association have broken down and the School Board is no longer negotiating even through a mediator on a couple of points. The issues causing the problem are retiree health benefits and high school teacher planning time. Let's tackle the first issue--retiree health benefits.
Lest anyone think otherwise, generally the health benefits and other non-pay compensation for teachers is generous, almost to a fault. But with the rising cost of health care, health insurance for retirees is often put on the chopping block for budgetary reasons. It happens in private enterprise all the time. Is it fair, well maybe not, but when teachers retire at say age 60 or 65, they are still looking at a 15-20 life expectancy on average. That is a long time to pay for health care for those people most likely to be using that health care and needing some of the most epxensive chronic care. Given that Frederick schools spend almost $10,000 per student, a portion of which goes to cover retiree health benefits, one has to wonder what the classroom impact of retiree health benefits would be, and the answer is obviously none. Did the school board "make a deal" with retirees and those close to retirement? Maybe and retirees and the union have a point. But what we are talking about is not cutting retiree health benefits completely, but rather, the school board is simply asking to make them a negotiable item. It is time to put one of the most expensive retiree benefits on the on the table and have a real discussion about them. Options exist and need to be discussed or the cost of retiree health care is going to bury this county.
The other matter teacher planning time quite honestly borders on the ludicrous. Here is a quick summary of the issue:
If state education officials need to take over a school because of poor performance on standardized tests, the principal is the first person to go.High school teachers get 450 minutes each week, that is 90 minutes a day for planning time and to do all those things Gary Brennan talked about. Fine, but what the school board is proposing is using just 10% of that time to do that which teachers should be concerned with, that is increasing student performance.
So the Frederick County Board of Education wants to give principals more power to handle responsibility for test scores by allowing them to claim 45 minutes of teachers' weekly planning time so they can collaborate on ways to improve student performance.
The main issue is with high school teachers, who have 450 minutes of planning time each week. The board suggested allowing principals to reassign 45 of those minutes to a mandatory collaboration among teachers.
"Our administrators currently don't have the means to pull their staff together for the purposes of collaboration," Boffman said.
Frederick County teachers however, fervently oppose the idea. Gary Brennan, president of the county teachers union, said high school teachers need their planning time to do anything from grading papers and responding to parents' e-mails to writing recommendations for college.
At high schools, teachers have planning at different times, so dedicating portions of it for mandatory collaboration would eat up teachers' planning time, without delivering the desired results, Brennan said.
"This is significant to us because we don't believe that the high school schedule is set up to make that time useful," he said.
The way the school board presents the matter is this:
If a school is in not performing as it is expected to on standardized tests, then the principal may ask that teachers work together for 45 mintues a week to find ways to improve performance.
Note the conditional, if the school is not making the grade. If teachers are doing their job and the students are peforming, then there is no need for principals to call the collaborative sessions. I don't think that most of Frederick County's high schools are in danger of a state takeover, indeed, I don't know of any in that category. But if they are in danger of a state takeover, then it is the responsibility of the principal and the teachers to make the grade, it really is as simple as that.
Brennan is also arguing that the way high school planning time for teachers is allocated makes it impossible for all teachers to get together so there is no point in having the sessions.
Rubbish!! So collaboration among teachers can only happen when all of the teachers are there? How patently ludicrous!! To collaborate, one only needs two or more people. It would be nice if everyone is involved, but it is not a requirement (what would happen if everyone could be scheduled to meet but one teacher was out sick that day--would you not still meet?) It seems to me that a little creative scheduling would be needed. Since the school board has acceeded to union demands that teacher not actually have to work longer for parent teacher conferences. (By the way, when parent/teacher conferences are held, students either go in four hours late or leave four hours early, so that teachers don't have to work extended hours on those two or three days when conferences are held, unlike when I was in school, teachers simply worked later those couple of days. I don't know if my teachers were compensated for the time, but I do know they were held later).
But what is really going on at the heart of this dispute, but left unsaid, is the general teacher's union hatred of standardized testing. I don't think anyone will argue that standardized testing is a perfect measure of teacher and school performance, but right now it is the only one we have. I have not heard from teachers how to address substandard performance on tests or how to get a better measurement (other than teacher directed assessment) of student performance.
In the real world, even in other government jobs, sometimes the boss has to call a meeting and you have to go. Just because teachers generally work in a solitary manner does not excuse them from the need to go to meetings called by the boss. Will 45 minutes a week really help students do better? I don't know, but what I do know is that teachers often complain about the lack of collegiality in teaching but when offered a chance to really exchange ideas to help students, teachers (or more specifically their union) balk at the idea. So what are we, the parents, supposed to believe?