OGDEN — Traffic parted and a red sea of protesters flowed toward the Ogden School District offices.
District teachers, with their representatives and supporters wearing red T-shirts to show solidarity, on Thursday rallied at Liberty Park, then walked along Monroe Boulevard to district offices to express righteous indignation with a new Ogden School District teachers’ contract.
The contract was mailed July 1, with a July 20 signing deadline and the promise of job loss for any of the district’s 700 or so teachers who don’t comply.
District officials said 350 contracts had been signed and returned as of noon Thursday.
“Today we are at war,” said Donald Thomas, former Salt Lake City School District superintendent and an educational consultant to various political leaders.
“Our war is with extremist forces in our own society who are hell bent on destroying American public education.”
Thomas told the crowd, estimated by event organizers to be 650 people, he believes the Ogden School Board is not evil, just misguided.
“What they have done is a violation of professional ethics and an attempt to break the spirit of its teachers,” Thomas said.
“They have given you a cup of hemlock and are praying that you will drink from it. It will not work, and it cannot stand. … A conflict between the board and its teachers does nothing to improve education for our children.”
Other speakers at the 50-minute, high-energy rally included Doug Stephens, Ogden Education Association president and a teacher at Ben Lomond High School; Greg Johnson, of the National Education Association; and Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, Utah Education Association president.
Teachers and others were invited to sign petitions protesting the district’s ultimatum to sign a new contract that was not the result of collective bargaining.
Teachers’ biggest contract concern is the elimination of steps — which are set pay increases based on years worked in the district — over six years.
Replacing steps will be financial rewards based on teacher merit, to be judged on factors not yet determined.
Teachers get a 2.93 percent pay raise, but are required to work at school an additional 50 minutes each school day.
The 50-page contract makes more than 100 large and small changes, teachers say, including limiting the grievance process available to teachers.
“It feels underhanded and wrong that the contract was not negotiated,” said Mike Weaver, a teacher at Mount Ogden Junior High.
“As I read the contract, I don’t even know when to show up for work, because the contract contradicts itself three times. And I have to sign, or I am fired.
“I would love to have the option not to sign, but I’ve got a family to feed.”
Weaver also questioned the mailing of the contracts in July, several months after most school districts list open positions and hire, making it difficult for teachers to find other teaching jobs.
“I can’t imagine that was not part of their plan,” Weaver said.
Weaver’s wife, Marie Weaver, said a major concern is agreeing to merit pay when no system of assessing merit is in place.
“Not many people would be comfortable signing a contract where they don’t know the outcome or what they are being asked to do,” she said.
Rita Palmer, a teacher at Mound Fort Junior High, said she would sign the contract because she loves the children she teaches.
“I don’t want to bail on my kids, and this won’t change anything in my classroom, but it makes me wonder about the district,” she said. “I’ll be looking over my shoulder. If they are going to do this, what else are they going to do?”
Teachers from Weber, Davis and other school districts attended the rally, as did members of the Machinist Union, the Teamsters, a plumbers union and representatives from the AFL-CIO, a national trade union organization.
After the group walked to the Ogden School District building, Stephens walked in a list of nearly 100 questions the teachers want answered. He returned and told the protesters the district would try to answer all questions.
Stephens advised teachers not to turn in their signed contracts, as was the previous plan, but to wait for answers he hoped would be provided before July 20.
School Board President Don Belnap said he believes the protesters did “what they feel like they needed to do.”
Belnap pointed out that teachers did get a pay raise and that an increase to the eight-hour, in-school workday of the past will benefit students.
“We want every one of our teachers back. We want them all back,” he said.
“If a teacher were to leave our district and go somewhere else, we wish them well, but they will be starting at the bottom of seniority, and if their new district needs to let somebody go, the last hired will be the first to go.”
Belnap said he saw no reason the district could not provide answers to the teachers’ questions before July 20, but regardless, the teachers’ signing deadline remains firm.
Belnap said the past couple of years of working with Ogden Education Association representatives “has not been good.”
Lengthy negotiations did not result in a contract agreement, so when the 2010-11 school year ended, the district considered contract negotiations for that period over and decided to move forward on its own for the 2011-12 contract.
Superintendent Noel R. Zabriskie said the district is researching systems that use merit pay and wants teachers and administrators to be part of that.
Information gathering and setting up a merit pay system for Ogden should take two years, Zabriskie said. The system will be implemented gradually over the following four years.
Zabriskie said merit pay will reward the teachers who are doing the best job for students.