Charter School gets OK

Sean C. Morgan

Of The New Era

The District 55 School Board unanimously voted to approve the renewal of Sweet Home Charter School pending negotiation of a new contract.

The school, operated by People Involved in Education, finishes the third year of its contract with the School District this school year. PIE also operates Sandridge Charger School in Lebanon.

The District 55 board held a 15-minute public hearing Monday night, with two persons speaking in support of the Charter School.

Opening the board’s regular meeting, the board approved moving forward with the renewal.

PIE Treasurer Mary Northern said there aren’t really any issues PIE is concerned about regarding the contract.

“It’s been a great working relationship here,” Northern said. The Charter School will probably want to add 18 students to its cap to allow a sixth-grade class.

The school had an enrollment of 114 to start the year.

The simple part is out of the way, District 55 Board Chairman Mike Reynolds said. Now it’s time to move on to contract negotiations.

But District 55 Supt. Larry Horton doesn’t believe the contract negotiations will cover any serious issues, he said. “I don’t know of any substantial changes.”

He will ask board members and staff to bring concerns to him so he can address them during contract negotiations, he said. He wants to do that prior to meeting with the PIE board, and he also wants to ask PIE to do the same.

“I don’t see any major issues,” he said. “Communication has been really good. The recommendations we’ve had for improvements have been followed.”

Present at the meeting were board members Dale Keene, Chanz Keeney, Jeff Lynn, Diane Gerson, Chairman Mike Reynolds, Leena Neuschwander, John Fassler and Jason Redick. Dave VanDerlip was absent.

In other business, the board heard from three teachers, who were supported by colleagues who packed the room, regarding labor negotiations, urging the board to prioritize its spending on teachers. The negotiations started last spring over a contract that expired on June 30.

Since then, the two sides have turned to mediation, but Sweet Home Education Association President Dan Swanson told the board the two sides were close.

“We’ve been bargaining for a long time,” he said. “It seems like forever.”

Both sides have moved, while more teachers have been getting involved and support the SHEA bargaining team.

“We are not that far apart,” he said in hopes of meeting this week, possibly without a mediator. “We think we can get it done. It has only a little ways further to go. Let’s get it done.”

Marty Steinbock, a U.S. history teacher at Sweet Home Junior High for seven years, told the board, “I began thinking about this button we’ve been wearing, ‘Invest in kids. Invest in teachers.'”

Investing is about priorities, he said. In addition to many hours of creative lesson planning, mostly at home, he attends sporting events and helps coach wrestling. He designed a school debate club this year so students could debate presidential issues. Out of his own pocket, he purchased new sports coats, ties and shirts so the students could play their roles.

“I have invested my heart in this job and as a result, I earn the trust of your kids,” he said. “These kids know I will do whatever possible for them. I watch their backs, while I teacher respect for themselves and others.”

Every teacher at his school does it, he said. “This is the hart of teaching, and it isn’t done for pay. It is done for the success of your kids.”

He has witnessed three contracts negotiated, he said. During the first, while money was tight, the district allocated 46 percent of its budget to teachers. That has declined to 42 percent in the past four years.

“But the state provided significant increases in their money to school districts for the last two years, and teachers believed the district would use this opportunity to increase teacher compensation, which has lagged behind the cost-of-living increases and lagged behind other districts in the state. Over 70 percent of the districts in this state pay more than in Sweet Home.

“Last year, the district’s budget was about $1 million more than the year before. This year there was about another million-dollar increase. That’s $3 million more to spend in the last two budgets, and yet your negotiation team has made us struggle for every dime in these talks.”

One of the district’s missions is “to attract and retain qualified teachers,” he said, but he finds no evidence in this year’s budget, but he has found 18 items that account for $1.25 million in increases, ranging from 10 percent to 1,241 percent increases.

He is certain the district had good reasons for all of them, he said, but to attract and retain highly qualified teachers, “it is time, I think to give teachers a higher priority. What about a simple statement that you want to retain qualified teachers and design a budget that makes those words mean something. What about doing your part to keep the heart in the classroom?”

Brian Gould has been a language arts teacher for 10 years. He was one of four language arts teachers. He is the last one. He watched the others move on to higher-paying jobs in other districts. Two more teachers moved in and stayed for a year before a stable staff developed.

That staff has received compliments from Curriculum Director Jan Sharp for multiple years of successful programming, he said. Words like those and satisfaction “mean far more to a teacher than pay.”

But compensation is vital to retention and team building, he said, asking how long teachers will work for below-average wages.

“We need a salary schedule that attracts and rewards excellent teachers,” he said.

Reynolds declined to respond to the teachers’ comments.