Dianne Hennenfent stood outside the Springfield District 186 headquarters before the start of Monday’s school board meeting and recounted how she paid $90 out of pocket each for three of her Advanced Placement psychology students to take their final exams.
“It made me feel,” said Hennenfent, a teacher at Southeast High School, “like (the district) doesn’t appreciate what we do.”
Pam Garcia, a music teacher at Wilcox and Ridgely Elementary Schools, brought her dachshunds, Lucy and Sophie, to the rally. Lucy wore a sign reading, “Don’t be a weenie..give us the greenie,” while Sophie’s sign read “Teachers just wanna have Fund$.”
Garcia has bought filing cabinets, furniture and curtains for her classroom, also out of pocket. Lack of resources is creating a situation where fewer people are considering teaching careers, she maintained.
“They don’t want to get into the profession,” said Garcia, who has been with District 186 since 1986. “Look at the salaries. Teachers are the core. We have to hear them.”
Garcia and others were uplifted by Monday’s rally that attracted more than 250 teachers, their family members and other supporters, forming a sea of red. The Springfield Education Association and District 186 have been at the bargaining table all summer and both have agreed to call in a federal mediator.
School Board President Mike Zimmers is hoping that both sides can return to the table within the next couple of weeks.
The bargaining table, said Springfield Education President Aaron Graves, has given the union the venue to talk about issues like school safety and security, support for at-risk youths, class size and teacher autonomy, in addition to salaries.
“Financially, we’re quite a ways apart,” Graves admitted, in a sit-down interview before Monday’s rally that started at Fairhills Mall. “We don’t feel we’re at the point financially where we could go back to our membership and say, this is really something.”
On wages, Graves pointed out that an average teacher assistant’s salary is $21,000 per year. A lot of classrooms, he added, “are more chaotic than they should be. Anybody who knows schools knows chaos in the classroom limits the amount of progress that can be made in that classroom. How is that fair to kids?”
The SEA is also asking for resources and programs to support at-risk youths. The district, Graves said, has no wide-sweeping plans to address students who have fallen through the academic and behavior gaps.
Joe Dulski has two English classes at Lanphier High School that both have 33 students.
“It’s kind of hard to do your job properly,” Dulski said, “when you have classes that large. I have one class right after lunch. I have to cut through the white noise to get to all 33 of them. I’m exhausted at the end of the day.”
Hennefent said she is using textbooks in her sociology classes that are older than her students.
“They want to learn about gender identity, police brutality, immigration issues and mass shootings,” said Hennenfent, who is having to gather other resources and put together power point presentations to supplement the textbooks.
Zimmers said the two sides aren’t at an impasse and that a federal mediator will hopefully speed things along.
“I think (the talks) have been pretty cordial so far,” said Zimmers, in an interview before the meeting. “I was on that side before (as a teacher), so I get it. They want fair wages and we’ll do what we can do to help them out as far as salaries and other things they’re asking for. At the same time we have a responsibility to the taxpayers because we only have so much money. That’s just the bottom line.”
“We’re a long ways off from a strike,” Graves said. “Truthfully, it’s the last thing in a negotiation and we don’t want to go there. We don’t want to put families through that, kids through that, the district through that, our members through that. We’re confident the district can find that midpoint we can all feel good about.
“In the end, it’s in the hands of the membership. If they don’t feel good about the offer the district has made and we go for too long, it’s inevitable.”
Garcia said it was one of the biggest turnouts for a teacher rally she could remember.
“We have a lot of energy in the union,” she said.
“I’m hoping,” said Ashley Peden, a second grade teacher at Black Hawk Elementary, “that (this rally) makes enough of a wave that maybe the district looks into our demands.”
Contact Steven Spearie: 788-1524, email@example.com, twitter.com/stevenspearie.