Teachers say employment agreement expired, ignored by Scottsdale Schools

A view of the gathering outside Coronado High School on Tuesday, Nov. 14. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

A slew of hands are raised, eagerly waving around in the air, just waiting to be called upon. Arms grow heavier, and heavier, as they begin to wonder why they’ve been overlooked.

That’s how Scottsdale Unified School District teacher, Bonnie Bezon described herself and her colleagues, who have been lining up at the district podium to speak for months pleading to be listened to.

During a Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board meeting Tuesday, Nov. 14, a new level of outcry was reached as many teachers and community members passionately asked to be listened to regarding recent changes made by district administration.

Various community meetings have been held since the consternation began within the school buildings, and on Nov. 14 a parking-lot gathering was staged for members of the SEA and community-group United Scottsdale prior to the governing board meeting at Coronado High School, 7501 E. Virginia Ave.

Anchored by initiatives in the district, such as the Coronado Success Initiative, a recently passed $229 million bond effecting every district school, and new programs being implemented, many community members and teachers have expressed building angst.

The biggest issue at-hand is the expiration of an annual teacher employment agreement that has for 50 years been formally agreed upon by both parties each year before going into effect July 1. Last spring, district administration began asking the governing board to suspend parts of the agreement for the remainder of the year, citing a need to update the teacher-hiring process.

Speaking at governing board meetings — oftentimes wearing matching T-shirts to show solidarity — has been a regular strategy for teachers since March when there was swirling concerns following changes to a teacher employment agreement, changing teacher transfer options and the timeline in which teachers are hired.

The district administration is crafting a yet-to-come handbook, district officials said earlier this fall, which appears to be a replacement for the TEA.

Scottsdale Education Association President and Desert Canyon Middle School teacher Julie Cieniawski says there hasn’t been much movement on the teacher employment agreement conversation in recent months, and in August she began asking publicly and privately to have third-party mediation or discussions.

The request has fallen on deaf ears, she says.

“Over and over again,” Ms. Cieniawski says of the number of times she’s requested third-party mediation for the district and the SEA. “In August, another time in writing to the governing board members, as well as two additional times in public meetings. It has never been responded to.”

Ms. Cieniawski has spoken at nearly every regular governing board meeting this year.

“I have to say I would never treat my students, or their parents that way; families in the community or colleagues — of not responding, either one way or another. The non-statement is a huge statement,” she said in a Nov. 14 interview.

Voice of direction

This past March, the governing board voted 5-0 to suspend language in the teacher employment agreement and adopt a new expedited staffing timeline. SEA representative Rony Assali spoke at the onset of the March 16 meeting, illustrating the reality that the association had only heard of the news two days prior, and had to ask permission to speak at the special meeting where public comment is omitted.

The meeting agenda describes the action item as revisions to the Teacher Employment Agreement, “to serve the best interests of the district and students, the board will discuss and may vote to suspend portions of the Teacher Employment Agreement regarding professional staff assignments, transfers, and department chair assignments.”

In April, the employee group held up green index cards when they would agree with something someone said —the governing board asks the audience to refrain from clapping or cheering during public comment. At the end of the public comment portion of the meeting, the teachers staged a walk-out.

At the May 9 regular Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board meeting, a number of public speakers used their allotted three minutes to address myriad changes happening at the district level. Concerns have varied from teacher pay, communication, processes, and a new Coronado Success Initiative aimed to improve one high school but one theme remains constant: teachers and parents want to be included in the changes.

The summer break appears to have quelled no concerns amongst the teachers, as three months into the school year the unrest continues.

Arizona Teacher Association President Joe Thomas attended the parking lot gathering before speaking during the meeting’s public comment time.

Joe Thomas

“They want to address some issues that they want the board to move from taking no-position on, to really addressing in a way that meets the needs of the students that they represent,” Mr. Thomas said in a Nov. 14 interview. “Teachers care very deeply about their students, they want what’s best for them and who better than the person who interacts with them seven hours a day to help the board.”

Mr. Thomas describes SUSD as a district that’s had a long-standing relationship between the teachers association, school board and the school administration.

“Everyone’s on the same team. When you start to divide everybody up and say ‘your voice is invaluable, your ideas have no merit,’ well that creates a different kind of work environment,” he said.

Mr. Thomas pointed to former SUSD teacher and 2016 Arizona Teacher of the Year Christine Marsh who left Scottsdale Schools last year for a neighboring district.

“You just don’t want to work in this kind of environment. You want everybody to be positive, be reflective and be respectful,” he said. “You expect your teachers to be that in the classroom, the teachers are expected to be respectful to the students … and yet that’s not being modeled to them from the top in the leadership and the board.”

Ms. Cieniawski expressed similar sentiments, stating the importance of the employment agreement to the teachers.

“Our employment agreement is important to us not just as teachers, we see it as important to our community,” she said. “It really does create the learning environment.”

Julie Cieniawski

The middle school teacher says the lack of teacher-input in decisions is troublesome because they are the ones spending the most time within the classrooms.

“The fact that our employment agreement was intentionally let to expire, and I’m using those words carefully, it was intentional. It was an attempt to really have a direction in our district where it’s top down, rather than understanding that we work with our students,” she said. “We really need to be the voice of direction because we see the impact of large class sizes, we see the impact of interns because teachers of record in our district, we see the impact of professional development.”

Ms. Cieniawski says it’s tough to tell what the district’s intentions are when it comes to having an employment agreement, and noted that not having one is highly unusual.

“We want to teach our students and we want to teach them in the best environment that we always can because we’re feeling like no matter what we see, and what we do, it falls upon deaf ears,” she said.

Northeast Valley News Services Editor Melissa Fittro can be e-mailed at mfittro@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/melissafittro.

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