Birmingham Teachers, Secretaries, and Paraprofessionals Rally Again for a Contract
Yet again, teachers, secretaries, and paraprofessionals demonstrated their support for each other and desire for an equitable contract during a rally on October 20. On September 29, many of the same staff members marched around Birmingham's public Administration building, urging the district to provide a fair contract, a rally that resulted in the district agreeing to the teacher union's economic proposal. Nearly one month later, the BPS staff rallied again, partly because that contract never materialized. Groves mathematics teachers Eric Springer and Cristina Antoniolli represented the secretaries at the protest on October 11. Antoniolli explained why they were holding a sign for secretaries when they are teachers. “The secretaries of our school are what allow the whole structure of our school to function," Antoniolli said. "Without them, the schools definitely wouldn’t run as well. We’re all together, and we don’t like how the secretaries and paraprofessionals are being treated by the school district.” Many of the protests revolved around staff displeasure for the large amount of currently unused money in the district's Fund- Equity, money the protesters felt should go toward the classroom and staff members who impact the classroom. Groves social studies teacher Geoff Wickersham explained his stance on the use of fund-equity as well as his optimism for the outcome of the protest to bring the union and the administration together. "They [the District administration] actually have twice the amount of fund-equity that is recommended by the state. They recommend only ten million dollars; our board has twenty million dollars. We just hope the district realizes that quality staff require a quality salary. For most teachers that are on steps [a pay-grade ‘ladder or pyramid’], their pay-grades are entered at the beginning of the year. We have a lot of young teachers here, and this is how they get an advance up the pay-grade scale. Having a contract in place keeps our cost steady. We know what to expect. We can plan many of our expenses and budget things like our insurances, retirement plans and social security, and other family benefits ,like our kids and saving for their college. Otherwise, it’s just like last year, and we feel an insecurity," Wickersham said. “I’m still hopeful, though. Hopefully they’ll [the District] get the message. However, if we do have to come out again when it’s colder and wetter, then we’ll come out here again and again.” Groves theater teacher and president of Groves Performing Arts Company (GPAC) John Rutherford stands up for the BPS staff at the protest on October 20. Staff members stayed outside the board meeting that night because they were warned they might anger the board of education if they went in to speak on behalf of teachers, secretaries, and paraprofessionals on their desire for contract that reflects their high rankings and increased workload. In response to this second demonstration, deputy superintendent for [Birmingham] school administration Paul DeAngelis clarified some of the District's hesitations for agreeing to the unions' proposals and wanted to clarify what he heard as rumors that emerged at the protest. "I think, when we’re often in contract and board meetings, we often equate that increases in salary with appreciation [of staff], and that’s fair. I think in this district we have done a very good job, speaking from a teacher’s stance, because we have not had to compromise on class sizes. Our class sizes are as low as any of our peer districts, if not lower than most of them, DeAngelis said. "I think that this is one of the things that are sometimes forgotten when talking about appreciation for staff. While I understand the equation of the appreciation tied to salary, I also recognize the financial limitations that school districts have right now. What I think is most important is that we make the best decisions for the kids, and I think class sizes is one of the most important things we can do to demonstrate that we appreciate the work our people do around here, and that we’re going to commit our resources to create the most optimal learning environment for our students and our staff.” During the protest, there were several signs that made accusations against the District wasting $700,000 on bathrooms. DeAngelis said that this was inaccurate. “There was a small misrepresentation of the board report that was released on September 20th. The increase was only $7,000, and this was to amend a project that had gone poorly by a contractor several years ago," DeAngelis said. "The district spent a significant amount of money to renovate bathrooms at our three middle schools. There was a claim against the contractor that they couldn’t effectively finish the job. Insurance covered some things, but there was a small raise in order to fix the final piece of that product.” This was one point that superintendent doctor Daniel Nerad interjected during Birmingham Education Association president Scott Warrow's speech to the board, a speech where Warrow expressed that the administration was "spending money on what made the district look good not what made it be good: its staff". Part of helping the district become better, Warrow suggested was not just telling the staff they were appreciated for award winning teachers, secretaries, and paraprofessionals but to show the staff through better compensation. This could include using surplus in the fund equity to compensate for earlier economic concessions on the part of all three unions. In response to this idea of using Fund- Equity money, DeAngelis worried that such use would damage the fund's sustainability and equated the use of fund-equity for the classroom to those who misuse credit. "You’re spending more than you bring in, which has become the American way it seems. Everyone carries a credit card, and there’s so much credit card debt because people spend more money than they can afford; it’s not sustainable. In a school district it’s certainly not sustainable either. In order to maintain class size and afford the programs we want for our students, we have to be responsible with our money. We simply can’t keep spending more than we bring in; we have to at least slow down how much we spend," DeAngelis said. "I think, most importantly, what is often missed in this whole issue is that our board ‘disagrees’ for the most part around the rate of spending [of Fund-Equity]. Our board does appreciate our people, and I know they’ve been hammered at the podium in public that the district has been hollow because we haven’t been giving salary increases. That’s not true. The board has given salary increases every single year. It’s about how much those salary increases are. It’s unfortunate that, often times, people equate salary increases with appreciation. I think the board has shown many other ways of how committed the board is to its students, staff, and the district that demonstrate our gratitude.” At the end of his speech, on October 20, Warrow urged the board and administration to show that gratitude by calling the lawyer they had hired to help them with over forty bargaining sessions and have him draw up an agreement to ratify the contract that night.