Twenty teachers confront Windber school board
Windber area school district (May 7, 2013)
Teachers asked why they could not take time off for extra hours worked when needed. Teachers said Windber Superintendent Rick Huffman ordered his administrators to deny comp time requests for time off during instructional hours, rendering comp time off essentially useless.
Middle school teacher Jamie Crum spoke on behalf of teachers and at one point fought tears. She was denied the use of comp time to travel to the elementary school to see her own child in a program. She was asking for about 30 minutes away from her own classroom.
"You don't understand the importance of our kids," Crum said. "I put so much extra time into this, and this is what we get in return."
Teachers said, and board Chairman Timothy Tokarsky agreed, that the education association could successfully grieve circumstances surrounding Huffman's supposed order to administrators to deny comp time requests during instructional time.
"And we would have lost this grievance," Tokarsky said.
Huffman did not attend the board meeting Tuesday night because of undisclosed health problems, which have kept him away from the district for several months.
During a sometimes heated and emotional discussion lasting well over an hour, Windber Area Education Association President Sharon Bonitz said Huffman "breached our contract."
"All we're asking is for you to let us be with our kids," Crum said.
Bonitz said the contract allows for comp time off to be taken during instructional time. School board members disagreed, saying the contract allows teachers to take comp time off only during their lunch and prep periods.
Teachers argued they could cover classrooms for one another during these types of absences, but board members disagreed.
"Who is going to cover that class? We don't have teachers with free time anymore," Tokarsky said.
Several teachers said they go above and beyond for their students and work plenty of extra hours to do so — but that it's happening at the expense of their own children and families.
Tokarsky said the teachers union insisted upon comp time being addressed, in writing, in the last negotiated bargaining agreement.
"You guys wanted comp time spelled out in the contract, and that's exactly what we gave you," Tokarsky said. "We aren't the ones who requested comp time be put into the contract."
But board members and teachers who turned out Tuesday clearly disagreed on what the contract language allows.
As frustration boiled over, Crum cried while addressing the board and apologized for getting emotional.
"This has been going on for years," Crum said. "There is a lack of communication."
Teachers said that they felt as if they were working "in a jail," that the district is run in a "secretive" manner and that a lack of communication between teachers and the administration was creating animosity and an atmosphere of mistrust.
And that troubled both the board and the teachers union.
By the end of the discussion, teachers and board members were able to talk and laugh somewhat about how the past hour-plus had gone. And both sides agreed that they had to fix what was wrong with communication between the board, the administrators and the teachers.
"Look," Crum said. "We raised our voices, there were tears, but now we're communicating."
Tokarsky and teachers discussed a committee to address what both sides agreed was a serious communication breakdown.
"I will do everything I can to fix this communication problem," Tokarsky said.
Bonitz said after the discussion ended that all the teachers want is for comp time to be allowed as it states in the contract — and for better communication from the administration and board to avoid misunderstandings and hard feelings.
"It's going to take awhile," Bonitz said. "But I'm not a pessimist. I believe we will come to a happy medium here."