Riff Raff: Watch your step

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,151 views 

An outline of planned pay raises for more than 1,100 teachers was presented during a Fort Smith Public Schools Board meeting in late April. There was little board discussion about the plan. It was almost as if they had private pay plan previews before the public meeting.

It was almost as if they had such previews before the public meeting because they had.

Superintendent Dr. Terri Morawski and other top district officials invited the seven citizen-elected school board members for one-on-one discussions about the significant change in pay schedules for teachers and staff. The media and the public wouldn’t normally know about such private discussions because, well, they are private, and, apparently, none of your business. Individual meetings between top staff and board members don’t require media notice.

This is all perfectly fine and legit, says the district, because the board was presented the plan at the late April meeting but will not vote on it until the May 22 meeting, which means the public has been properly included. That explainer borders on what we Johnson County farm boys might call, “BS.”

A significant change in pay for more than 1,100 Fort Smith teachers – folks on the front lines of the socio-economic foundation of this region – should include more than a cursory presentation and follow-up vote. It damn sure should include more than seven private discussions in which any questions and concerns will never be accessible to the public – the public, aka, the taxpayers for and users of the public school system.

And this is not just any new pay plan. Your Arkansas Legislature and Governor have given us the LEARNS Act. It is a broad change in how we do public education in Arkansas. Part of the new law is a wholesale change in how teachers are paid. The good thing is they will all deservedly make more money. (In the spirit of full disclosure, my wife is a public school teacher.) The mixed-emotion news is that your Legislature and Governor didn’t budget enough money so that the pay raise for veteran teachers doesn’t rise in percentage terms as much as does the pay for a first-year teacher.

Therefore, we all should be interested in how the district will adjust the pay schedule to ensure we don’t devalue the tenure of veteran teachers while providing better pay for first-year teachers. And it is indeed complicated. There are TMSR (Teacher Minimum Salary Raise) funds provided by the LEARNS Act, local revenue money, and state revenue in addition to TMSR, with state revenue tied to a complicated state-prescribed funding formula.

“The District is keeping the current salary schedule structure that values professional development and teaching experience,” noted part of the district’s pay raise presentation.

But does it really? Maybe the pay schedule does value teaching experience. Maybe it doesn’t. What is the value of professional development? I don’t know. And those are all questions we might expect would be addressed with a robust public dialogue between school officials, the publicly-elected school board and, well, the public.

For example, a Fort Smith public school teacher with 10 years of experience could be paid just $1,400 more a year than a teacher fresh off a college campus. Does $140 a year value teaching experience or professional development? The school district has successfully extinguished any semblance of a teachers union, so we have limited insight into the best interests of teachers. Which is to say the district can claim it is acting in the best interests of the collective teachers as long as the teachers aren’t able to express a collective interest.

The sad thing about this private pay raise discussion is that it’s not a surprise. Hide-the-ball began to be the school district’s modus operandi after the arrival of Superintendent Doug Brubaker. There was hope that would change when he left for Texarkana, but Morawski likes Brubaker’s mushroom strategy.

In what is not an insignificant accomplishment, the school district has in recent years made the city of Fort Smith look like a champion of transparency. For example, the city of Fort Smith posts its meeting agenda online several days in advance of a meeting. The electronic agenda includes links to what are often numerous documents related to each agenda item. The public is often well informed about what the city board is being asked to consider. The school board agenda is posted just a few days before the meeting and rarely includes links to documents. Links appear about an hour before the meeting, and more often than not are just a few sentences about what will be presented and not the documents presented at the meeting. It’s hard to believe school board documents are more difficult to provide than the plethora of city of Fort Smith documents.

Again, this is not a surprise. This is a school district that couldn’t – or wouldn’t – say how much of its millage work was given to local companies. It’s a district that, with a straight face, said Nabholz is a local construction company. District officials were less than open about causes of delays in opening the district’s Peak Innovation Center. The delays resulted in at least $1.6 million in added costs.

With a few rare exceptions, members of the Fort Smith school board are co-opted by district leadership; they become cheerleaders allergic to any outside criticism, and minimize their governance oversight obligations.

I’ve been told board members prefer the private discussions. If true, that means several highly paid district officials spend significantly more time than necessary to discuss an issue. Meeting in public to discuss an issue not only allows for collaborative questioning and input from the board, but it gives the public/media more information about the district. For example, Fort Smith City Directors meet twice a month in a study (non-voting) session to publicly discuss important issues. The school board had study sessions prior to Brubaker’s arrival. One school board member, Sandy Dixon, has pushed for more study sessions, more meetings, and more transparency. She’s largely ignored.

Please know, Kind Reader, this essay is not posted in any hope of soliciting change. The deck is stacked, for now, against that hope. The simple goal is to point out the BS so you might know where to step when you participate in the next school board election.