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Loudoun teachers turn clock watchers to make a point about budgets, overtime

By Caitlin Gibson
Thursday, November 18, 2010; 9:57 PM

The teachers started gathering shortly after 7 a.m. Nov. 10 outside Little River Elementary School in South Riding, many wearing buttons that read "We're Worth More" and clutching cups of coffee to ward off the morning chill. As part of a countywide movement called Work to the Rule, the teachers had come together to make a point by entering and exiting the school as a group at precisely the beginning and end of each school day.

"We want the community to understand just how much time employees spend above and beyond the work day," said Sandy Sullivan, president of the Loudoun Education Association.

The association launched the effort this year to call attention to the county's public schools budget and the amount of extra time that teachers devote to their jobs, Sullivan said.

"There are a myriad of things happening before and after school hours," she said. "Teachers frequently donate their time to pour sodas at fundraisers, to come in before school to tutor students, to serve on a volunteer committee.

"The other part is really to highlight the underfunding of the schools and how it's directly impacting the classroom," Sullivan said. "Employees have had their salaries frozen for three years and are dealing with furlough days."

The first round of Work to the Rule took place during the first two weeks of school in September. The second round began Nov. 3 and concludes Friday. Participation has generally been enthusiastic, Sullivan said, although schools and staff members find different ways to support the effort.

"Some schools have really overt ways of doing it, like Little River, entering and leaving en masse," Sullivan said. "In other places, employees are not volunteering to do things above and beyond. So instead of agreeing to serve on a committee, folks are saying, 'No, I need to cut back.' "

Outside Little River Elementary, Alyson Manning, a special-education assistant, said the teachers made a point to wear black coats and scarves during Work to the Rule.

"We're mourning the loss of respect," she said. "We're sad about the situation, but we still come to work every day."

Vicki Petrosky, a music teacher who held a sign that read "Support Public Education," said10 to 30 staff members have participated in Work to the Rule each day.

The school has a staff of about 60, Petrosky said, adding that many say they can't participate because they have too much work to do. She shook her head at the irony.

"A lot of people feel that they are just so pushed for time that they can't do it," she said.

All of the teachers compromise the effort somewhat to make sure that students aren't negatively affected, she said.

"Everybody takes work home, even though with Work to the Rule, you're really not supposed to," she said.

As two more staff members joined the group, a parent dropping off a child outside the front entrance honked her car horn in approval. Petrosky hoisted her sign into the air and waved. Two other parents in cars gave the group a thumbs-up.

Parents have been extremely supportive of Work to the Rule, Petrosky said, suggesting that the teachers hold signs and gather farther from the front doors to create a more dramatic entrance. Many parents wear buttons that read "They're Worth More," Petrosky said.

Lisa Glasgow, a parent of a fifth-grade special-education student at Little River, said she wears a button to support the teachers because she thinks the underfunding and overcrowding in the county's schools deserve attention.

"We have to keep investing in this," she said. "No matter how bad the economy is, they still need to teach these kids. . . . The classrooms are overcrowded, the teachers are taxed and they need to make this statement."

Sullivan said the Loudoun Education Association was pleased with an important recent victory: Loudoun public schools received nearly $9.5 million this fall as a result of Virginia's grant application for funding from the Federal Education Jobs Fund. On Tuesday, the county Board of Supervisors voted to turn over the funds to the county School Board, which plans to use $4.5 million to restore pay to Loudoun teachers for two furlough days imposed this year.

"I've already heard from a lot of members who are very pleased that this money came through for them and that they won't be experiencing a pay cut this year," Sullivan said. She said she was also excited to learn that the supervisors had received hundreds of e-mails about the issue.

"People were really engaged and speaking out about it," she said.

The next challenge is on the horizon: Another Work to the Rule effort is planned for late February, Sullivan said, when the fiscal 2012 budget is likely to be on the supervisors' agenda.

"We understand it will be a very difficult budget process this year, so we want to make sure we have folks informed about the budget and how to support the schools," she said.

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