To the Editor:
Our schools fail because of our teachers, our school committees and ourselves.
Most teachers I’ve known were good—at least two were saintly. Teachers are like snowflakes; they can be individually wonderful, but calamitous in great numbers. And, when they coalesce into a union, they shed both their personality and their good nature. They become self-serving and foreign to the purpose of teaching.
They do not change solely by themselves, but are complicit with their school committees. I know few school committee members and those only casually; I can’t testify to their individual qualities. I have to judge them by their group behavior, and by this judgment they are unattractive. Under their authority, our schools have failed for a decade or more.
When I consider their individual motivation, I believe school committee members initially seek membership either because of a selfish interest in better education for their own children or to obtain qualifications for a political career.
The latter reason is intriguing since our school committees have during their tenure been counterproductive. It also indicates a smug confidence that the public will remain unaware of their failure. Their failure is especially disappointing since there is no group with more authority to improve schools. They have authority over the educational process, over the selection of textbooks, over teachers, over school principals and over the superintendent of schools.
It is only in approval of the school budget that they have to acquiesce to the higher authority of city councils and the voting public.
There may be some that remain open-minded and uncertain about the school committee’s performance. A review of the teacher’s contract, negotiated and reputedly unanimously approved by the school committee, must provide clarity.
This contract, in its preamble, speaks about: “providing a quality education for the children of the Lewiston Public Schools” and about “the quality and morale of the members of the Association.” It clearly does more for the morale of the Association’s teachers than it does for the education of Lewiston’s children.
This lip service for quality education is similar to the large American flags flown at automobile dealerships; they should not, because of the statement of their size, be equated with similarly sized patriotism.
The teacher’s contract for Lewiston provides:
The school year shall not exceed 182 days.
The school week is limited to 35 hours, which includes 25-minute lunch periods.
The maximum instructional time for middle school and high school teachers is 260 minutes a day.
Teachers “may leave the building without requesting permission during their scheduled duty-free periods.”
Teachers “shall have fifteen (15) days sick leave annually with pay.”
The sick leave may accumulate from year to year to a maximum of 135 days.
A teacher, who has exhausted their sick leave, may be allowed an additional 20 days with compensation, minus the amount paid to a substitute (approximately $75.00 daily).
Teachers may be paid for 40 to 60 days of unused sick leave upon retiring after 10 to 30 years of service respectively.
They may take 8 days sick leave for illness in the family.
They may take 2 days of sick leave for personal time and a day for visitation.
Teachers may take 5 days per occurrence for bereavement time without loss of pay. This is bereavement for in addition to spouse or significant other “children, parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, grandchildren, in-laws, custodial children and step-relationships.” This is not chargeable to sick leave.
With approval, two teachers a year may take sabbatical leave for up to a year each and be paid at half their pay rate.
Teachers with a BA will be paid a salary ranging from $32,782 for a beginning teacher and increasing to $54,874 for a teacher with 25 years experience. There are higher rates for additional educational degrees and certifications.
There are many families in our community, struggling to earn a living, many working several jobs, who will find teacher salaries and benefits enviable. I remember working without benefits and being expected to work so hard and steadily that a co-worker, who paused in his efforts, was told: “Blow your nose on your own time!”
When we question the generosity of the teacher’s contract, we must also consider the value of the work they do. What is the quality of their final product? It isn’t good.
The very best indicator available is the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). This test, originally intended to determine a student’s likelihood of succeeding in college, was adapted by educators for high school juniors by imposing a lower rating scale. It is administered each spring to high school juniors.
In Lewiston, 50% or more of the high school juniors failed in the four categories of: critical reading, mathematics, writing and science. It was only the “White” demographic and only in mathematics that a higher percentage were proficient (59%). In Auburn, less than 50% were proficient in any category or demographic.
When we consider this failure, and because we all know capable teachers, we struggle to understand how this could happen. Although economically disadvantaged children and non-English speaking students make the educational process difficult, they can’t by themselves account for the magnitude of our failure. The cause of the failure has to be found within the teacher’s contract which the school committee continues to enhance and within our processes which our school committees resist changing.
As yet unexplained is why do our school committees continue to enhance benefits for teachers while the schools continue to fail? The only viable explanation is that our school committees are elected politicians and they are courting the good favor of a powerful teacher’s lobby.
Fifteen days sick leave is unreasonable; Auburn teachers have seventeen. Would anyone be surprised if within the next contract, Lewiston teachers receive an additional two days to achieve parity with Auburn? The next Lewiston teacher’s contract negotiation will take place next year; negotiations for higher teacher salaries for Lewiston’s teachers are being conducted now.
If excessive sick leave is provided, excessive sick leave will be taken. Any day a teacher is absent is a lost educational day. Paying retiring teachers 40 or 60 days for unused sick leave expends educational funds that could be used to provide additional help for struggling students. A contract change that would benefit education and keep teachers within the classrooms would be to pay teachers for eight days sick leave whether taken or not.
Since teachers would be paid whether they took sick leave or not, and since any day they did take would cost them out of pocket, they might be expected not to take unnecessary leave. However, this is not possible since there is a state law mandating that teachers will receive at least 10 days of sick leave each year. Why does the state insist upon 10 days for teachers and not for hair stylists, sanitary workers or construction laborers? Remember, the teacher’s association is a powerful lobby and the Augusta legislature is comprised of elected politicians.
We must accept the remaining guilt for our failing schools. There are educators who believe parents should take active roles in their children’s education. This is, of course, good advice. However, parental involvement will be uneven; economically disadvantaged and concomitantly educationally disadvantaged parents are awed by teachers who they believe know so much more than they; they choose to trust these educators to make the best choices for their children.
Well-educated professional parents, unimpressed by teacher credentials, advocate for their children who consequently receive a disproportionate amount of attention. The parental involvement, so desired by educators, is taken to an extreme when disaffected parents decide instead to home-school their children.
For all of us there is a narrow, one-day window when we vote for school committee members; it occurs every two years. This is when we will fail or succeed. If we continue to vote for the most recognized name on the ballot, we will likely re-elect the same school committee while reassuring them that we approve or don’t care what they are doing, and the public education we have, although faulty, will be the one we deserve.
Since our schools are failing and the present school committee is most responsible, we should vote them out. This will require us to identify two individuals, the committee member representing our ward and the at-large member. I will resist naming all these incumbents; citizens not willing to determine this for themselves will be unlikely to remember when they go to the polls.
We have one additional opportunity to express our dissatisfaction; it occurs in May when we vote or don’t vote for the school budget. If we continue to approve it, while half of our children are failing and while our teachers continue to be inappropriately rewarded, we will send the wrong signal.