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Prince George’s teachers run ads calling for smaller classes, better pay

The TV spots are airing as contracts are negotiated between unions and the school system.

Students arrive for the first day of school in Prince George’s County at Deerfield Run Elementary in Laurel, Md., on Sept. 5, 2021. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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The Prince George’s County teachers union launched an ad campaign Friday that calls for more investment by the school system into initiatives that would reduce class sizes and boost teacher pay.

Two advertisements coordinated by the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association — which represents about 10,000 of the county’s active teachers and other education professionals — will air on all local network television affiliates and on multiple cable networks over the next four weeks. The advertisements push for Maryland’s second-largest school system to also provide more mental health support for educators and improve teacher retention efforts, which educators say are needed because of the difficulties of teaching through the coronavirus pandemic.

The Prince George’s County school system was the last in Maryland to reopen for in-person learning last April after being closed for almost 13 months during the pandemic. High coronavirus case numbers — more than any other county in Maryland — kept Prince George’s from opening sooner, said Monica E. Goldson, the system’s chief executive. The school system is one of the few in the country to still require indoor masking for staff and students.

The advertisements include testimonials from teachers who say they are facing heavier workloads because the school system struggles to attract and retain staff. A voice-over in the ads says that a lack of sufficient preparation time for teachers and inadequate staffing levels inhibits the district’s 130,000 students from “reaching their full potential.”

“They’re giving you 45 minutes to get done five hours worth of work; it just doesn’t make any sense,” educator Justin Robinson said in one of the advertisements. “That’s really what drives people away.”

The advertisements are a part of a “public awareness campaign” that the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association will host for at least the next month. Donna Christy, president of the union, said the campaign was launched as the organization navigates bargaining with the school system for the next contract and as hiring season approaches. The union has made over a hundred proposals during the past few months, Christy said, and each one has aimed to “solve inherent problems in the school system.” The proposals have included initiatives that would expand on trauma-informed instruction and social-emotional learning to help students recover after the pandemic.

Howard Burnett, Prince George’s County Public Schools senior adviser and chief negotiator for union agreements, said this is the second time the school system has agreed to conduct negotiations open and publicly. This year, the two parties have reached agreement “on more items than I’ve ever received from a union,” Burnett said. The school system negotiates with five unions.

“When you’re considering their proposals, you have to consider whether we can accomplish it,” Burnett said. “We have to look at all five unions and the impact on them.”

Christy said the system has been plagued with chronic staffing issues, and teachers are worried it may be exacerbated by the pandemic — especially because educators began returning to in-person instruction this academic year.

Data previously provided by the school system showed that approximately 798 teachers resigned in the 2018-19 academic year. But fewer teachers resigned, approximately 703, during the 2020-21 academic year, the first full school year of the pandemic. By Feb. 1, 203 teachers had resigned.

“We need to settle this contract so that we can assist our human resources department and give them what they need to be able to attract and retain staff,” Christy said.

“What we want — and I should hope that the public would want this as well — is a world-class education for every last one of our students,” Christy said. “But we cannot get there without making it a place that people want to work.”

Burnett said he wasn’t sure why the teachers union said its proposals have been declined, noting that the school system has considered a lot of what the union has brought to the bargaining table. He also noted that when Goldson’s administration took over Prince George’s County Public Schools, it added a salary-step restoration plan, announced in 2019, that gave all employees a 3 percent increase in pay in addition to negotiated salary increases — about a $46 million investment. After negotiations are finalized, projected for late June, employees will probably see the largest increase in the past 30 years, Burnett said.