9/26/07

Union activism downgrades high-end school district

After averting a strike with hours to spare before the first day of school, Shoreline teachers Thursday are staging a one-day strike over another dispute with the district. The Shoreline Education Association, backed by many parents, blames administrators for making elementary-school students bear the brunt of the latest cost-saving measure: boosting some class sizes three weeks into the school year.

The 10,000-student district has already closed two elementary schools to save money. The ongoing turmoil threatens Shoreline's image as one of the region's most sought-after school districts.

The district, which canceled Thursday classes in anticipation of the walkout, says it must undergo drastic measures to avoid state sanctions following a financial scandal two years ago. "The reputation of the district is in jeopardy with the actions of the association," Superintendent Sue Walker said. "There wasn't a town here originally, there was a school district, and people moved here to be a part of that."

Shoreline's test scores — well above the state average on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning — along with low teacher turnover, community support for levies and small class sizes have long made it a destination district for families from Seattle.

The latest dispute has to do with those class sizes at elementary schools. The district has to pay teachers extra if their classes are larger than 24 to 27 students, depending on the grade. At the beginning of the school year, Shoreline had 61 teachers with overloaded classes - an expense of about $500,000.

So starting this week at most of the district's nine elementaries, students were shuffled into different classes - in some cases combining two grades in one room - in order to designate some larger classes and keep the rest of the classes small. Then the district assigned an additional teacher to help out in the larger classes, usually for an hour or so a day. That way, the district doesn't have to pay any teachers extra.

The largest classes have about 30 students and could grow as new students move into the district.

Parents were livid. Sharon Reijonen said she told her fifth-grade son, Ben, about his new fifth-sixth combination class over the weekend, after getting a call Saturday from his school's principal.

Ben "lost it," she said. "He said, 'Why me? Why me? Why did they pick me?' "

Two days into the change, she said, her son has been eating lunch alone and doing handwritten math problems the teacher prepared - absent curriculum for a split class - on the fly.

"The right that we have to a good education, by this decision by the administration, has been hindered," Reijonen said.

The district's financial troubles blew up in 2005 when a series of mistakes by top staffers resulted in a $5 million shortfall. Two years and two superintendents later, the district has balanced its $85 million budget. The state, as part of its oversight, requires the district to be out of the hole in August 2008. If that doesn't happen, the state could assign a budget manager to the district or take other steps. Last year, Shoreline was still $1.5 million in the red.

In the latest dispute, changing the elementary-school class sizes is just being responsible, said School Board member Dan Mann, who is among three of the five board members running for re-election.

"We're trying to use our resources more effectively than we have in the past," he said.

The teachers, who in late August joined with staff members and threatened to strike over pay and benefits, now say they feel the district misled them about a contract change that makes the new class assignments possible. They say district negotiators told them the change related to secondary schools, then used the change to adjust elementary-school classes. District officials say that's not true.

"Before we do something this instructionally damaging, we believe we should have exhausted all possible avenues for revenue generation and for cost reduction," said Elizabeth Beck, co-president of the Shoreline Education Association.

But at this point, it's too late to return the kids to their original classes, Beck added. What the union wants now is for the district to commit to retaining its usual staffing system for next year.

Kaydee McGillivray, a Brookside Elementary School teacher whose sixth-grade class this week gained eight fifth-graders, including Reijonen's son, believes teachers are being forced to bargain to protect students.

"This is the first time in my teaching career I have ever been embarrassed to be in this district," said McGillivray, who has been teaching for 27 years, 17 of them in Shoreline. "They're sucking the soul out of Shoreline."

Parent Ed Coleman said the teachers have remained the school district's strong suit amid the financial problems. But letting the financial troubles directly affect elementary-school students, including his sixth-grade son, crossed a line, he said.

"There's definitely a sense that in this whole struggle to bring the financial picture back into line, there's been a certain callousness and overlooking what's happening in the classroom," he said. "It's past the eleventh hour, it's past the twelfth hour. It's the third week of school."

Parents also planned a march Thursday.

But district officials say they're standing firm, making decisions that should have been made years ago.

"I don't think the strike is going to change what's going on, and I think it sends the wrong message to the community," board president Mike Jacobs said. "Frustration and disappointment are my primary emotions at this point."

(seattletimes.nwsource.com)

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