Comments at the 5/5/21 School Board Meeting on behalf of TTEA Leadership
Members of the board, executive cabinet, and our virtual attendees.
I am a teacher at Truckee High School, as well as the Vice President and Grievance Chair for the Tahoe Truckee Teachers Association. It is hard to believe, but this is my 30th year in TTUSD. Now, 13 of those years were as a student. But when I realize this is my 17 as an educator, it makes me realize that somewhere along the line, I got old.
During my years as a student in TTUSD, I paid attention to the normal things a student would: friends, sports, and vacation. I remember that at one point, part of this board room was Mr. Brady’s English classroom; next door in the gym is where Mr. and Mrs. Deschler along with Mr. Besio taught PE; and part of the superintendent’s office was actually my 4th grade class with Ms. Anderson, which was the place where I earned the only F of my student career, in history. Did I mention I teach history at Truckee High? Too late, I have a tenure.
After college, I moved back to Truckee and was fortunate enough to be hired in my current position in 2004. My wife (also a Truckee grad and teacher in TTUSD) and I were fortunate enough to buy a home in Truckee in 2015 and both of our kids are students in the district.
So, bona fides aside, why am I here tonight? Aside from drawing the short straw of who gets to be live-streamed, I feel like I have seen some ups and some downs in my 17 years in TTUSD. While I sincerely feel that the ups have outweighed the downs, it feels like the last year and a half or so- and you all might agree- has been trending towards the latter.
I have been writing these notes off and on for the past 6 months or so. And at the last board meeting, Gaylen said something that resonated with me; after Kate Teller’s board report, in his comments he referred to the idea of perspective. I think that word is extremely important for all of us to be mindful of. Students have it, parents have it, superintendents have it, board members have it, teachers have it. However, it seems at times we have lost sight of that, and it feels like a contributing factor to our current strained relationship.
My goal tonight is to explore 3 questions surrounding TTEA’s relationship with the District: First, where are we? Second, how did we get here? And third, where are we going?
Now I hope I am wrong, but at times it feels like email might contribute to downfall of our civilization. Social media might be a close second, but at least there is a 50/50 chance it is just someone posting a cute picture of their kid or even their dog. Not so much when you open that work email. And I am sure we have all had our share of those emails, especially over the last year.
As a school board, you likely have the most constituencies to navigate: parents, voters, community members, community organizations, the county and the state, students, and the kicker…teachers.
We hate email, but we love sending it- and sometimes those emails are directed to board members. No doubt the board has received emails from teachers over the years. I would venture to guess though, that at least some of the recent emails have been different as of late (either in quantity or tone). I would also guess that some of those emails have felt personal; and if that is the case, it is regrettable. It is in the midst of difficult conversations that we all should be aware of the impact of our words.
It is a two-way street, though. Comments in board meetings that praise “teachers” while compartmentalizing and reviling their elected association leadership could also be perceived as being personal.
While there may be things that we do not agree on, I would like to assure you that we (as teachers, an association, parents of children in the district, and members of our community) respect your service to our towns, our district, and our students.
As board members, your job can be a thankless one; after all, you guys get January as school board appreciation month. You’re bookended between New Year’s and the Super Bowl. Plus, you have to pass your own school board appreciation resolution- that has to be awkward to propose, second, and vote on.
And while email, social media, and now virtual public comment have made it easier than ever to criticize, you have remained committed to our district and our students. And we thank you for that.
So, on to question #1: Where are we?
I think the answer to our first question of “where are we” can be summed up as, “not where we want to be”. And I think that answer is probably true regardless of your perspective.
Over the last year to year and a half, our common principles of collaboration and cooperation have been under pressure. Those characteristics that we have prided ourselves on have rather quickly been replaced with terms like, purple shirts, grievances, impasse, arbitration, and mediation.
And again, regardless of perspective, the open and honest dialogue that we have worked so hard to establish and maintain feels different.
We do not trust each other as much as we used to, and our lines of communication have been disrupted. All of this is counterproductive to our shared goals.
Question #2: How did we get here?
In what I would call the first chapter of my teaching career, relations between TTEA and TTUSD were not great. As a new teacher you don’t know all of the history- and our association tries to be conscious about asking too much of new teachers, but it was pretty clear that the relationship was less than ideal. Board meetings lasted into all hours of the night, public comment could get heated, pink slips were a March norm (I got 3 in a row), and trust was non-existent. It was, in every sense of the word, adversarial. And morale was at an all-time low.
The next chapter began when the economy started to recover, and we embarked on a listening and learning tour. Slowly, we began to make progress.
Each side made attempts to build trust through a collaborative process. Yes, there were setbacks and differences of opinion, but they were respectful- and through the process of engagement, a lasting dialogue was built and maintained.
During that time, our district made great strides. I even carpooled with Todd to a budget workshop. I felt badly because he had to remove his car seat to make room for me and anyone who has ever put one of those things in a car knows how fun that can be. But imagine that for a second, the director of business services was giving a union rep a ride to budget workshop…would that happen today?
During this second chapter, both sides placed a high priority on resolving differences before they became problems. We met regularly and the lines of communication were always open.
We even established a tradition of planning and splitting some of the costs associated with the convocation BBQ. Covid aside, would that happen today?
It is my belief that our relationship first came under strain during last year’s “year of austerity”. When negotiations opened and TTEA proposed a salary increase, it felt like that proposal was taken personally. And here is where perspective comes in.
Kim has referred to the Board’s fiduciary responsibility to remain solvent now and for the future. We acknowledge and respect your perspective on that responsibility. As an association, it is our responsibility to advocate for our members, and we would ask that you acknowledge and respect our responsibility to our membership in that regard. It is not like our negotiating team goes rogue and unilaterally decides what to do at the table. We survey our members multiple times to determine what to discuss in negotiations.
In 2020, we had a different interpretation of the numbers, as we do this year. At the time, our request for all costs to the district, including construction, were taken as a lack of trust. We were asked to accept zero; that requires more than faith.
Then, in March 2020, Covid hits. Despite our differences, we managed to put them aside and concluded negotiations. We then got to work figuring out how to best serve our students.
However, from our perspective, it feels like those hard feelings have not gone away.
And that brings us to this year…
There have been times this year where it felt like the union was being held up as the obstacle to reopening schools. The wording of press releases regarding MOU negotiations led many in the community and even some in our own bargaining unit to conclude that it was TTEA who had the power to dictate whether schools would reopen or not.
As we all know, the district was required to talk with their respective bargaining units, but the decision to open was ultimately up to TTUSD.
Teachers were asked these questions by their friends, their neighbors, and random strangers via the aforementioned tool of email. To her credit, when TTEA discussed this with Carmen there seemed to be an effort to change the tone and we appreciate that.
As a public entity, we respect the district’s desire to be transparent. At the last board meeting there were several comments by teachers in reference to the decision to share detailed information regarding negotiations. If it is truly your perspective that you wish to issue those specific details publicly, ok…we would welcome further conversations on that topic. Just realize that from our perspective, that is a significant departure from past practice.
We worry that if that is the new dynamic, it will likely create a competition of who can craft and spin the best message for public consumption; and it will drive us further apart.
This brings me to my final question.
Where are we going?
I am worried that we have entered- or are entering- a new chapter. A phase in which there is a lack of trust on all sides and an increasingly combative relationship.
If we continue down this road, our collective concern should be whether a reconciliation is even possible. It is unfortunate for all sides, but it does feel like we are approaching that point. I am concerned for us as an institution. The things we do today, make a difference tomorrow.
In our social studies classes, we discuss human nature’s tendency toward tribalism; our need to associate ourselves with likeminded people and our proclivity toward confirmation bias make compromise difficult.
So, my question for all of us tonight is: do we retreat to our respective corners and resign ourselves to the momentum of our current situation or, do we (as the adults in the room) figure out a way to get us all back to our #1 priority?
At the end of the day, we should focus on the fact that we have more in common than we don’t. With that in mind, I wanted to end on something I think we can all agree on:
And that is “we”, as a district have a great deal to be proud of. In addition to our annual achievements, TTEA wanted to recognize a few individuals and groups that have made the last year and a half the best it could be. The top 10 list, in no particular order:
We made the switch to distance learning after 2 days; some schools took weeks or more. TTUSD was ahead of the curve in reopening in hybrid and then 5 day in-person. That is a credit to a collaborative relationship.
Mr. Ed Hilton and his army of techs worked hard to get internet access for students so they would be able to attend online. Chromebooks were repaired and distributed. And most challenging of all, they helped teachers (who for some, the digital divide may well have been the Grand Canyon) get up and running with their classes. Imagine where we would have been without our tech plan and infrastructure that had been developed in the years prior to 2020. Ladies and gentlemen, nice work.
Site administrators stepped up and plugged as many holes and chased down as many resources for their teachers as they could. They tracked down students who were not attending and tried to make sure that our schools persevered as communities.
Mr. Todd Rivera, the procurement wizard. Plastic shields, air purifiers, MERV filters and other PPE. I am sure that was not what you had in mind back in the day when you were in your business and accounting programs. In all seriousness, your efforts are not unnoticed, and they are greatly appreciated.
Food services never missed a beat. They stepped up and fed our community…enough said. Seriously, an amazing job.
Custodians have kept our buildings open, clean, and safe. Even more than usual, you have exceeded the label of essential.
Transportation, who has a difficult job under normal circumstances, has figured out ways to get busses for those students who need it the most.
Maintenance, site secretaries, instructional aides, Fiona our resident K-9 at Truckee High School (mask)…across the district, our people have stepped up.
Parents. As honorary unpaid employees of our district since March 2020, well done. Our learning curves were steep, but we have done the best that we could.
While some may call it pandering, I am a TTEA officer, and it is teacher appreciation week. I would be remiss to not end with teachers. While teachers are not alone in this feeling, the last year has been hard. I have a few shout-outs for teachers:
Cohort C elementary teachers. Multiple grade levels, 100% online. Prepping synchronous and asynchronous instruction at all hours of the day, night, and weekends to educate the newest members of our district. We all know the importance of childhood literacy and these teachers are working hard to achieve that goal. Parents, board members, random strangers, if you have not reached out to this special group of people, I know they would appreciate any “atta-teacher” you could send their way.
Teachers that support our specific populations. This model has presented significant challenges in getting to know and supporting students who will be with you for years at a time. These teachers support our students who need the structure and support of a normal learning environment, and I think we can all agree that the last year has been anything but normal.
Teachers with hands on subjects: PE, science, music, and art to name a few. Your creativity and adaptability have been inspiring.
Coaches and extracurricular advisors. We have an active and engaged community; the levels of participation in extracurricular activities by our student bodies reflect that commitment. You have figured out ways to help provide at least partial seasons for our students. That will not be forgotten.
And a huge shout out to our school nurses who done an outstanding job given our current situation.
In closing, I will leave you with this. I don’t like purple. I don’t want to wear purple. Did I mention I’m color blind, and I only have one pair of black pants I can match with this thing? Help me.
TTEA is the largest bargaining group in the district. We realize that whatever agreement we reach helps influence the agreements that the other labor groups get in our district. We also understand that plays into the math when discussing settlement options. We would like to be clear that we also support a comparable increase for our classified staff. And while we may not always agree with our site admins, we recognize their hard work and dedication to our collective profession, and we support a fair increase for them as well.
The mediation process that begins next week will allow us flexibility to become creative in our potential solutions. I assure you, we will have creative proposals. You may disagree with some of them, and we may disagree with some yours. Let us both commit to making sure we take each other’s perspectives into account and not take things personally.
Thank you very much for your time.