I write for myself and fellow Ogden City School District board members Don Belnap, Jennifer Zundel, Joyce Wilson, Jeff Harris, Steve Marker and Shane Story. With interest and disappointment, I read the comments of Ogden Education Association president, Doug Stephens, in the Standard-Examiner. He offered no analysis of the new contract, no comment on the financial aspects of it, no reasoned argument, no rational thought. Instead, he offered nothing more than an attack. His factual assertions, disappointingly, were both incorrect and unchallenged. Mr. Stephens may well be entitled to his own opinion; neither he nor anyone else is entitled to their own facts.
One of Mr. Stephens' assertions is that teachers are leaving Ogden School District "in droves." Ogden District ordinarily has a bit less than five-dozen year-end open teaching positions. This year, we have fewer than three dozen open positions. Among teachers leaving employment in the District, 14 cited compensation, benefits or lack of career opportunities as one reason for leaving. Other cited reasons -- outnumbering complaints about pay by more than three to one -- that included retirement, career changes, or family reasons. Teachers in Ogden School District are loyal and the District's employment is stable.
The Board and the teacher's association negotiated throughout the 2010-11 school year without success. Since April 2011, the Board called to resume negotiations twice, only to be rebuffed by Association leadership. The parties have not had a contract since the conclusion of the 2009-10 school year. Nevertheless, the Board honored expectations to pay benefits, provide insurance, and pay more than $2 million in increased retirement expenses. Moreover, the Board paid step-eligible teachers a $920 stipend last month. In 2009-10, a similar, but smaller, stipend was paid. The argument that teachers have lost steps without at least admitting that the Board has made additional lump-sum payments is dishonest.
In April and May 2011, Association leadership rejected two Board requests to negotiate. By June 2011, it was apparent that no agreement would be reached for 2010-2011. With the end of the school year, the Board was left to wonder what does one negotiate when the year has run out? How does one negotiate with an Association that will not meet? The year was over, services completed, payment made. Because the year ended, there was literally nothing left to negotiate. Moreover, the contract itself explicitly provided that, if not renewed, it expired. It appears that Association leadership chose brinksmanship without recognizing where the brink was.
The Association's course is also out of step with the times. It is hard to understand a demand by government employees, who have virtually guaranteed employment, for a raise. With unemployment high, private-sector wages flat, foreclosures common, a wage hike without some other concession is just wrong.
It is regrettable that the Association has embarked on this course. Without a meaningful partner in negotiation, the Board was left with few options. Given the special challenges in the Ogden District, more of the same was not a reasonable option. This Board chose a different route.
With the expiration of the contract, years of ossification-imbalanced provisions contrary to the interests of children and District taxpayers-could be reversed. Precisely because the Board honors its teachers, it was only fair to offer a contract to those willing to continue. When the Association rejected the Board's offer earlier this year, I am informed that fewer than 90 teachers (of the District's more than 700) attended the meeting and that the vote was roughly a 60/40 split. While the Association is within its rights to reject an offer or to take any particular position in negotiation, it is unfair to suggest that the rights and interests of hundreds of teachers should be held hostage by so few. Given the circumstances, prudence dictated the Board's actions.
Presented with the opportunity-unwittingly offered by the Association's own intransigence-the Board opted to jettison the relic. In its place is a leaner, clearer, fairer contract. Neither the Association nor the Standard-Examiner has provided any analysis of the new contract. Amazingly, the Standard-Examiner uncritically reported Mr. Stephens' assertion that Ogden teachers are now paid three or four thousand dollars less per year than teachers in Weber District. Again, the facts betray his assertions.
Under the new contract, the Board has funded and more fairly structured steps and provided a cost of living increase. Comparing a teacher who worked a full 30 years under Ogden District's new schedule with the same teacher under Weber District's new schedule reveals that total career income for most teachers varies by a few percentage points, sometimes in Ogden District's favor. A reasonably informed financial analysis of Ogden District's compensation reveals that it is fully competitive with districts surrounding Ogden.
In a recent KSL/Deseret News report, Ogden District had the unenviable position of having five of the 10 lowest-performing schools in Utah. The answer to this indictment cannot be more of the same. The same expectations, the same performance structure, the same attitude will not result in the changes we so badly need. To simply expect guaranteed pay increases (i.e., steps) is no longer tenable. Addressing the dire needs of students is a more important consideration. Yet the Association has brought forward nothing to address this issue. Nevertheless, the Board cannot ignore it.
In every school, parents, children, teachers and principals can name high-performing, high-achieving teachers with a high level of agreement. We celebrate and would like to reward these great teachers. Similarly, the same groups can name low-performing, low-achieving teachers. We would seek to motivate those teachers to either greater performance or another line of work. Student excellence-evaluated on measures including but beyond mere test scores-must be the touchstone for evaluating any performance pay program.
Teachers, parents, and taxpayers are rightly concerned about a shift from steps to performance-based pay. Performance pay must be fair and it must be seen to be fair. Thus, a careful and conservative phase-in of performance pay is planned. Steps will continue in their present form for the next two years, while a task force of teachers, administrators, parents, and taxpayers will be formed to study and review performance-based systems. In the four years after 2012-13, a performance-based pay component will be gradually implemented.
In this way, a careful review of performance pay can be undertaken over the next two years. A program can begin implementation with four additional years of review and adjustment. This painstaking approach involves every stakeholder, including teachers, parents, and taxpayers.
The Board does not expect that performance pay will be based exclusively-or even primarily-on students' test scores. Though student performance is one measure of teaching effectiveness, it is not the only measure. Any performance-based compensation must include many factors. Any standard will also need to address the fact that some areas of teaching are not easily tested, such as the fine arts or athletics.
Our approach is no simple expedient. It is an effort to address in a rational and progressive fashion some of the failures of our District. Recognizing excellence is not something done sufficiently or well in education; it is badly needed. A reactionary response-like, it can't be done-reveals one part of the problem. This Board has made a courageous decision to become active participants in a solution; not part of the typical, passive agglutination of our country's profound education problem.
Mr. Stephens asserted that the National Education Association, the Obama administration and others cannot compose a merit pay system. Yet, as recently as July 4, the New York Times reported that the NEA had recently moderated its long-standing opposition to the use of student achievement in teacher evaluations. It appears that the Ogden Association is simply against any change, however modest or beneficial.
While I welcome reasoned debate on this topic, I do not accept the assertion that it is impossible to design a fair and reasonable system. The federal government's "Race to the Top" education funding, awarded to 15 states by the Obama administration, includes the use of student scores to evaluate teachers. Whole states have performance pay components for teachers, like Florida. Entire districts have merit pay, like Houston and districts in Colorado. In Utah, many charter schools utilize performance-based pay increases. Even the Association has agreed with using performance pay on a limited basis in several schools in Ogden District. Performance-based pay is coming; it will likely be mandated by the state in the next few years. Our students cannot wait longer for this innovation.
I believe our children are capable of reaching every expectation we place upon them. If we expect them to fail, they will; if we expect them to flourish, they will. The question is whether we-parents, teachers, education leaders-are willing to demand more of ourselves. Great expectations-for ourselves and our children-are the clearest expressions of hope and faith and confidence in our children. Low expectations express despair. I chose faith over fear. I do not believe I have all the answers, contrary to Mr. Stephens uncivil suggestion. I am, however, confident that we have not been asking the right questions. My faith, my hope and my confidence are that by changing course, we can create better conditions for children in our district to excel. Our recent changes are a reflection of that faith.
Smith is a member of the Ogden School Board.