St. Mary’s County teachers plan a ‘back to basics’ work action

Teachers in St. Mary’s County plan to stop doing the “extras” and will focus only on instruction as part of a protest over pay, union officials said Monday.

When classes begin next week, the majority of the teachers in the school district plan to participate in a “back to basics” job action that includes refusing to give homework, work overtime, volunteer for extracurricular activities and contact parents after school hours.

Anna Laughlin, president of the Education Association of St. Mary’s County, said teachers are frustrated with the way the county funds its public schools and hope to draw attention to teachers’ lagging salaries.

“We remain committed to our students, and no area of instruction will be compromised,” Laughlin said. “However, our teachers can no longer work for free and continually get passed over year after year for salary increases.”

Laughlin said 80 percent of the 1,300 teachers in the small-but-growing district in southern Maryland, which serves 17,840 students, plan to cut out the work that is done outside of the school day.

The protest comes as the teachers union and the school board negotiate a new contract for the district’s 910 unionized teachers. The sticking point: pay raises.

James Scott Smith, the county’s acting assistant superintendent of instruction, said school officials recently learned of the teachers’ plans and principals will meet with teachers in their schools to have a “frank discussion” about what the impact might be.

“Each building is different and has different things going on, so it’s hard to make a blanket statement about impact,” Smith said. “At this point, it’s hard to tell.”

Sean Sayers, a seventh-grade social studies teacher who came up with the idea for the “back to basics” initiative said teachers have been giving too much and getting too little in return.

“I have seen so many teachers give so much of their core being and yet they struggle to make basic bills,” Sayers said.

He said he would prefer not to take the action, considering the impact it could have on the school system and its students. But, he said, the teachers cannot continue to stay quiet.

“We love our kids and we know this is going to impact the kids,” Sayers said. “But the problem is inertia. We have to do something, even if we take a little bit of a hit.”

The action in St. Mary’s follows a similar protest last spring in Fairfax County, Va. A group of teachers at McLean High School in March said they would cut back on their extracurricular activities, including science and art fairs, additional academic help, and chaperoning proms, to protest a lack of pay raises.

In St. Mary’s, where 96 percent of the classes are taught by highly qualified teachers and 91 percent of its students graduate in four years, Laughlin said salary increases have been sporadic as the demands of the job have grown.

The teachers received an increase in salary last year. However, she said, they had not received raises in the two years prior. She said the district has been “playing catch up” with the pay raises.

When Laughlin became a teacher in 1988, the school system’s budget represented 51 percent of the county’s budget. This year it was 37 percent of the county’s budget.

Laughlin said a teacher with 10 years of experience and a master’s degree earns about $60,000 a year in St. Mary’s, a stagnating figure that has not kept up with other jurisdictions.

She said she would make $15,000 more if she worked in neighboring Calvert County.

“Until additional county funding becomes a reality, educators are committed to this sacrifice, and it is a sacrifice because going above and beyond the call of duty is what we do,” she said.

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
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