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Posted at 03:48 PM ET, 02/28/2012

Prince William schools’ administration responds to ‘work to rule’ protests

The Prince William County schools superintendent responded to ongoing and growing protests over teacher pay freezes in a letter he sent to staff late last week.

Superintendent Steven L. Walts said in the letter that he “remain[s] confident that our PWCS family will always put the education of our students first and avoid any disruption of the educational process.”

The letter, which one teacher called “bullying” and another said was viewed as “condescending,” laid out school regulations in regard to “work to the rule” protests, where a small number of teachers at a growing number of county schools work only the seven-hour workday mandated in their contracts to draw attention to how much educators do outside of classroom hours.

Walts’s letter, though, will probably give teachers pause about whether to participate, as he explained that school regulations require teachers to lead and participate in activities outside of the mandated workday. State law also prohibits work stoppages and strikes, the letter notes, and those employees should “be aware of the need to request any leave in advance and for a proper purpose.”

In the letter, Walts said that school staff had compiled the list of state laws and county regulations “to clarify the issues and help employees avoid unintended consequences.”

One teacher, who asked not to be identified because she fears retribution, said she had canceled after-school activities she is involved with. Given the letter, she is now reconsidering.

“Most people I’ve spoken to felt belittled and bullied a little bit by his remarks,” the teacher said.

It wasn’t the school administration’s only response recently to protests that started in mid-February. County elementary teachers had looked to circulate letters explaining “work to the rule” by sending them home with students. That, however, was in violation of school regulations because it advocated for an outside political cause, according to an e-mail sent to area principals from Prince William Associate Superintendent Keith Imon.

The e-mail also said that the teachers’ letter could be interpreted as “work stoppage and insubordination.”

After teachers were warned by principals, none of the letters appear to have reached home, said Philip Kavits, a spokesman for the school system. Furthermore, he said, no teachers have been disciplined as a result of the “work to the rule” protests.

“It’s a combination of the teachers’ own commitment to their students and being aware of the expectations and regulations,” Kavits said.

The Washington Post was passed copies of the letters by county teachers who asked not to be named because they feared it could impact their jobs.

Teachers are planning to continue to try to get the word out and hope to gain the support of parents and local officials. They raised money and bought a $900 full-page advertisement in the local InsideNova Weekly insert Tuesday, teachers said, and have also received a permit for a rally Friday from 3 to 6 p.m. at Prince William Parkway and Minnieville Road.

In recent interviews, teachers said that the protests are not just about teacher pay. They hope to send a message to Prince William residents that a great education cannot be bought on the cheap. If the county fails to support veteran teachers, the community risks its economic prosperity and quality of life.

“[Residents] really need to understand that their property values are going to go down,” said Charlotte Peyton, a Battlefield High School teacher. She said if veteran teachers leave, well-known and regarded high schools such as Battlefield will suffer. “If my [veteran] colleagues leave Battlefield, I’m not going to send my kids there.”

By  |  03:48 PM ET, 02/28/2012

 
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