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Aurora board rejects arbitration ruling

Aurora school board members on Tuesday rejected an arbitrator’s ruling that they violated their contract with the teachers’ union by imposing a sixth class on high school teachers without more pay.

The 5-2 vote followed nearly three hours of often emotional testimony from teachers who urged the board to accept the decision and others – principals, bus drivers, custodians – who urged it be rejected.

At stake was what district leaders said would result if the ruling were accepted, including the loss of 70 to 90 jobs to cover the $4.4 million needed to compensate high school teachers for the extra classes.

The threat of more cuts was too much for Anthony Ruiz, a 16-year bus driver who said support workers already are doing far more with much less. His own job is being downsized, from a 365-day contract to just 215 days beginning Jan. 1.

“Without custodians to open the school sites or nutrition services to feed our students or bus drivers to transport our students to their classrooms, you would not have school,” Ruiz said. “No one is challenging their commitment or their decision but I feel my job is no less important than the teachers.

“If the high school teachers are above being asked to do more, then this $4.4 million will hit us again.”

After the vote, Board President Matt Cook read a brief statement describing the rejection as “the right thing to do for the district as a whole.”

Extra class part of budget package

School board members approved the additional class in March as part of $17 million in budget cuts to deal with dwindling state revenue for 2010-11.

Last year, Aurora high school teachers taught five 100-minute classes every two days – what’s known as a “block” schedule. They typically taught three 100-minute classes one day and two 100-minute classes the next, or a total of five different courses.

This year, the addition means they’re teaching three 100-minute classes each day, or a total of six different courses every two days. That extra 100 minutes was usually spent on planning or one-on-one time with students before the change.

Brenna Isaacs, president of the Aurora Education Association, the teachers’ union, said she got word of the change in a letter from the superintendent – without any attempt at negotiations.

The union filed a grievance, alleging the change violated the terms of the contract, and an arbitrator last month issued a non-binding ruling in its favor.

Isaacs said the ruling may be advisory but “his findings were fact.”

“We have not exhausted all options in getting all parties to live up to their word,” she said after the board vote, noting one option is a lawsuit. “We have not made any decisions, nor have we ruled anything out.”

Issue creates rift among teachers

Aurora board members approved the extra class for high school teachers after teacher and parent surveys placed it among the more popular budget measures.

That’s partly because adding the class brought high school teaching time up to par with elementary school teaching time – about 25 student contact hours a week, versus 20.8 hours weekly last year. Middle and K-8 teachers still teach slightly more.

In a survey last year to set budget priorities, 63 percent of elementary teachers who responded rated the extra class for high school teachers as a “most favorable” option. Among high school teachers, 66 percent rated it their “least favorable” option.

That divide became increasingly clear Tuesday night, as dozens of speakers took their three-minute turns at the microphone before an audience of more than 400.

Lynne Evans, a high school teacher in Aurora since 1976, said she has more students this year than in any prior year.

“Last year, I had 145 students total with five classes. This year, with six classes, I have 191 students that I see over a two-day period,” she said. “I find it almost impossible to give them the attention that they need and the feedback that they deserve …

“I have had to turn children away this year and say I’m sorry, I can’t talk to you now.”

Elementary teachers said they get half the daily planning time of high school teachers and while they may have far fewer students, they’re usually teaching them six or seven different subjects.

“You can’t possibly be ready to pay high school teachers more if you’re not ready to pay all teachers more,” a first-grade teacher at Tollgate Elementary told board members.

Dwindling dollars taking a toll

An informal count at the beginning of the meeting showed those in favor of rejecting the arbitrator’s ruling outnumbered those in support of it.

A succession of Aurora administrators – district department heads, principals – talked about how they’re handling more work with fewer people and dollars.

A handful of community members who served on the district’s budget committee also urged the board to reject the ruling, saying their tough decisions in compiling $17 million in savings should stand.

“Every company is asking every employee in these tough economic times to make sacrifices,” said Karen Porter, a parent on the committee.

Tony Johnson, a custodian at Gateway High School, said he was out of work for two years before being hired by the school and that the extra class period is “a fair concession.”

“We all need to sacrifice,” he said. “We all need to make concessions.”

Such comments clearly upset some high school teachers, who said they felt they were being portrayed as lazy or ungrateful.

Kasi Mireles, a social studies teacher at Rangeview High School, said she was ok without additional money but that, “180 students is too many students for me to connect with and to help.”

“I want to be able to connect with my students … and I don’t want anybody to get fired,” she said. “But don’t tie my hands, help me to help kids.”

Jessica Rodriguez, a North Middle School literacy teacher who taught 180 students in six courses last year, urged high school teachers to lean on each other.

Adding the sixth course for high school teachers means more options for students, she said, and that helps too. State test data later showed her students made more than a year’s growth in a year’s time.

“At the beginning of the year, I was in the same shoes that the high school teachers are in now – I was frustrated and overwhelmed,” she said. “But after many adjustments and sacrifices, I found a way to be effective. And I realized that their growth was not just because of me, it was because of the time and support these students had with more teachers in a day.”

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