Utah teachers worry about precedent set by Ogden district
Some Utah teachers worry that the Ogden School District is setting a precedent for other districts by skipping negotiations with its teachers union and phasing out pay based on experience.
At least one influential lawmaker says he hopes it will lead to similar reforms statewide.
The district sent notices to teachers last weekend, telling them that it is not negotiating with the Ogden Education Association for a collective 2011-12 contract. Teachers are asked to sign and return an individual contract by July 20 or their jobs will be advertised as open for hire. The district also announced that over the next six years it aims to replace "steps," the profession-wide standard of giving raises based on years of experience, with merit-based pay.
Ogden teachers feel that their voices aren't being heard, and, though their union is not opposed to the idea of merit pay, they are wary of agreeing to a system that has not yet been designed. Sen. Howard Stephenson, chairman of the Education Interim Committee, however, applauded the changes Thursday, saying they could help bolster the case for paying teachers statewide based on factors such as how much they improve student performance.
The Ogden Education Association is planning a rally July 14 at Ogden's Liberty Park on the matter, and the Utah Education Association (UEA) is inviting other local associations and the public to attend, said Mike Kelley, UEA spokesman. The leaders of several local associations said Thursday they and their members plan to be there to support Ogden.
"It makes us very nervous," Ross Rogers, president of the Canyons Education Association, said of the situation in Ogden.
The district and CEA have been locked in a dispute over whether the district will continue to negotiate some policies that it feels are unrelated to employee compensation. The Canyons teachers union declared an impasse three weeks ago, but the district has invited them back to the bargaining table on Monday, Rogers said. In an email to CEA this spring, Canyons Superintendent David Doty hinted that other policies could become non-negotiable in the future.
What is happening in Ogden, Rogers said, "sets a precedent that we do not want to have in the state."
Elaine Tzourtzouklis, director of the Wasatch Uniserv, which serves teacher associations in Tooele, Murray and Salt Lake City school districts, said she has notified members of all three groups of the Ogden rally.
"We need to show solidarity because this is something that could hurt every one of us in the years to come," she said. "It's hard to work in a situation where you're not well-respected."
Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, UEA president, said what's happening in Ogden is a symptom of a national controversy over the roles of teachers and their unions. Wisconsin recently passed a law that weakened the collective bargaining rights of its public employees. The actions in Ogden also follow a legislative session in Utah where a number of bills were passed that Gallagher-Fishbaugh has said targeted teachers or their unions.
"I do not think there is any way to get around the fact that there is an attempt to dismantle the association," Gallagher-Fishbaugh said. "What I get concerned about is Ogden is still in negotiations with administrators, still in negotiations with classified [employees], so, yes, I do wonder why. Why this group? Why this very important group who are on the front lines every day dealing with the needs of our children?"
UEA and Ogden Education Association leaders met Thursday evening to discuss the situation, and Kelley said the UEA is considering legal options but had not yet made a decision as of Thursday evening. Doug Stephens, Ogden Education Association president, has advised Ogden teachers to sign with the district, saying they have little choice, but has asked them to hold off until July 14.
Others, however, say the Ogden changes have to do with improving education for students, not a lack of respect for unions or teachers.
Brad Smith, an Ogden School Board member, said he has no problem with unions or collective bargaining. But he said that when the teachers' last contract expired, it became "clear there's some really important things we can do for the benefit of children in our district that we would probably not be able to get through negotiations." The 2010-11 school year ended without a negotiated contract due to a stalemate between the district and the union.
"[Performance pay] puts the focus where I believe it should be, on outcomes for students, rather than outcomes for teachers," said Smith, noting that the district struggles with high poverty rates and achievement. "I love our teachers. I respect our teachers, but I love our students and want to help our students more."
Stephenson said the Ogden changes could be a catalyst for statewide reforms.
"With the leadership of the Ogden School Board and the superintendent, I think legislators may realize this is an idea whose time has come, that it's time to end the lock-step, one-size-fits-all salary schedule and start paying teachers on their value in the marketplace of jobs and their success in improving student performance," Stephenson said.
Stephenson said the Education Interim Committee plans to discuss possible bills before the next legislative session, including the idea of eliminating "tenure" for Utah teachers and prohibiting collective bargaining in Utah schools.
The Utah Taxpayers Association, in its latest newsletter, praised the Ogden and Canyons districts, and said it was thrilled to see schools "putting the needs of children before the union's special interests." Stephenson is president of the Taxpayers Association.
Some, however, have more mixed feelings.
Deanna Porter, a parent of students at Mt. Ogden Junior and Ogden High, said she likes the idea of paying teachers based on their performance. But she worries that the dispute between teachers and the district over negotiations could prompt some educators to leave Ogden.
"I wonder if this is going to send teachers elsewhere, if this is the last straw," Porter said. "They have a lot of challenges in this district. They may not have those challenges in Centerville or Provo."
What's next? Ogden teacher rally
P The Ogden Education Association plans to hold a rally to discuss changes planned for teachers in the district at 10 a.m. Thursday at Ogden's Liberty Park.
Ogden district's new terms of employment
R Teachers are asked to sign and return an individual contract by July 20 or their jobs will be advertised as open for hire. The district also announced that over the next six years it aims to replace "steps," the profession-wide standard of giving raises based on years of experience, with merit-based pay. For 2011-12, all Ogden teachers who sign their contracts will get a 1.6 percent cost-of-living raise. Moves to higher steps will not be funded, but there will be some adjustments to make the pay schedule more uniform, ensuring a 3.27 percent increase between every step, which will result in an additional raise for some teachers.