Sunday, August 31, 2008

Current Conditions

Just a quick note today - last Wednesday, the negotiating teams of the SEA and the school board met to discuss contract terms. They met at 9 o'clock that morning, and continued long after the lunch hour.

The Board negotiating team initiated this meeting, and NO ATTORNEYS were present for either side. Still at this meeting, the SEA refused to move from their original position. Because of this, the Board negotiating team had no other course but to offer the SEA team our final offer.

We had hoped that their team would take our offer to their membership; however, we learned from media reports the following day that the SEA negotiating team had refused to share our offer with its members, deeming it "unworthy of a vote."

I confess that I don't understand collective bargaining very well. So, I don't understand why the SEA negotiating team wouldn't just take the offer to their members to allow them to decide for themselves whether or not it was an acceptable offer. Instead, these few people decided between them (and their OEA union rep) that their members would not be allowed to have a vote on the matter.

I don't get it. . .

Since that time, I have had friends and family within the district ask what will happen should the SEA decide to strike. First of all, please know that SCHOOL WILL REMAIN OPEN !! Our kids' education is our top priority, so we have authorized Superintendent Paulette Baz to enter into a contract with Huffmaster Associates in the event of a strike. This company will provide supplemental teaching staff for all grade and subject levels to keep our children's education moving forward.

Please understand that any person who wishes to teach or be otherwise involved in a public school - even volunteers - must pass the same FBI fingerprinting and background checks as our regular teaching staff. In addition, substitute teachers are required by law to have the same educational background and license or certification as a regular teacher. So all members of the Huffmaster Associates staff are fully qualified teachers, and will greatly help to minimize any disruption for our children in the classroom or sports programs.

We Will Have School !

I am aware that in at least one of our school buildings, some of the teachers have begun spreading nonsense that the supplemental staffing will include "ex-cons", "criminals", etc. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I am at a loss as to why these people who claim to care about our kids would say such things. Unbelievable! I ask you as parents to report those teachers to us by name who say these and similar things, so that we may allay your fears, and address the situation directly with them.

Likewise, please feel free to contact the building principal or Superintendent Baz if you have questions about what is happening in the building where your kids attend. For example, if you are wondering what is going on with honors English at the Middle School, then get on the phone and call Mr. Ohlemacher at 419-826-4016 (or Mrs. Baz at 419-826-7085). If you have a question about scheduling or classes at the high school level, call Mr. Gfell at 419-826-3045. Our principal at Park Elementary is Mrs. Myers who may be reached at 419-826-3766, and Crestwood questions may be asked of Mrs. Lutz at 419-826-8991. These administrators are in the business of caring for and educating our children, and they welcome your questions and ideas. It is so much better to just call and ASK, instead of fretting and wondering about something. So please pick up the phone and get answers!

Several people have asked me to explain the difference between a standard health insurance plan and a self-funded plan, which is what we have at Swanton. Rather than take up space here, I suggest you "google" the concepts as follows:
In your search box, type in this phrase exactly as you see it here: "self-funded" insurance
Be sure to place quotation marks around the first word. Press Enter, and you'll get several pages of websites that give explanations of how these two types of insurance plans work. When I worked at The Andersons in the '70's, we had a standard Blue Cross/Blue Shield plan, but we moved into a self-funded plan and that is what they have today. Having worked over 20 years there as Benefits Administrator, I am very familiar with both types of contracts. There are cost savings and benefit flexibilities in a self-funded plan that do not exist in the standard format - plus, self-funded plans are subject to ERISA regulations.

As tensions mount during this time, please do all you can to calm your children, especially the little ones. They are caught in the cross-fire of something far beyond their control, and we all need to exercise patience and restraint for their sakes.

All of us - parents, teachers, and administration - want to get back to the business of educating our kids. Please pray for a sensible and speedy resolution to our contract negotiations.

Monday, August 25, 2008


I was out of town at a wedding reception for my brother-in-law in Kalamzoo this past weekend, so I missed out on the Homecoming game, dedication, etc. on Friday and also the Corn Fest on Saturday. Bummer !!

First, some housekeeping. Last week, I sent an email to several concerned parents in our district, and I included this question: "Is it appropriate to threaten a strike when the difference is only one half of one percent (0.5%)?" My question was based on statements made by high-ranking officers in the SEA (who are also members of their negotiating team). HOWEVER - these statements were not given in writing, and have subsequently been refused and denied by the other members of the SEA negotiating team, including their union rep. They have decided to hold firm on their initial demand, which is greater than a half percent difference. (and I thought we were almost home. . . )

Today (Monday) I read the press release issued by Superintendent Baz, as well as the article in the Swanton Enterprise. I think some things need a little clarification, in order for our residents to understand some of the terminology and phrases used in the press release. So! Here we go!

In the third paragraph of the press release (which begins, "Secondly . . . "), comments are made with regard to teacher salaries that might be just a bit confusing to anyone not already involved in public school finances. Let's take a look at them together, and as the SEA likes to use Fulton County as its comparison, we will do likewise.

There are different levels of "base" salaries - the lowest "base salary" (BA minimum) is for teachers with a 4 yr. degree and no experience. At Swanton, that salary is set at $29,198. The average BA minimum salary in Fulton County is $29,930, with Wauseon having the highest BA minimum salary of $31,525. Swanton is the lowest in Fulton Co. at this level, with the next highest (Fayette) at $29,316.

The next salary base level is the BA maximum. This is for those teachers with a 4 yr. degree and some years of experience. In this category, Swanton has $48,907. The average BA max in Fulton County is $49,278, with the Pike-Delta-York system having the highest at $52,185 (in this category, Swanton is only twenty bucks different than Wauseon). Evergreen is the lowest in this category, at $46,664.

Then we move into the categories for teachers who hold a Master's Degree in their field. In the MA minimum category, Swanton pays $32,702. The average in Fulton County for an MA min category is $33,203. Again, Wauseon has the highest number here with $34,362. Swanton is the lowest in this category, coming in just a bit under Delta who shows $32,857.

A category entitled, "MA 11 Yrs. Career Rate" is next. Swanton uses $50,367. The average in Fulton County is $50,443. (Wauseon shows $53,435) Evergreen is the lowest here, at $48,998.

In the next category of MA maximum, Swanton pays $56,791. The average in this category is $57,480. Pike-Delta-York is again at the top, with their rate of $59,797. (Wauseon is at $58,637, and Evergreen is the lowest at $56,284)

Comparing Swanton's base salary rates against the county average doesn't give a perfect picture; it only takes one or two schools on the high end to skew the "average". You can find all of this information online at the National Education Association website (see my earlier post for a link to their spreadsheet).

Let's continue our inspection of teacher salaries in Fulton County. In the state of Ohio (and others), there is a salary schedule program commonly referred to as "steps". You can read about it within the Ohio Revised Code here. Basically, the program seeks to reward teachers for their years of service. The minimum "step" in Ohio is 11 years of service, with a corresponding incentive salary increase independent of any other contractural salary increase.

In other words, if a school district did not give a general raise to their teachers, those teachers who qualified would still receive a raise based on their standing within the "steps" program. If a general salary increase was given to teachers within a district, the additional "steps" percentage would be in addition to that general increase.

In the Swanton school district, there are several "steps" beyond the state minimum. We have "steps" for each year up to 15 yrs, another step at 18 yrs, and another at 25 yrs, with corresponding salary increases at each level irrespective of any general salary increase. As one board member has described it, we have many teachers who automatically get a 4.5% raise every year just for remaining alive - because of their standing within the "steps" program. (and that 4.5% is not our highest "steps" percentage) These "steps" percentages are applied against the base salary for the category.

Again: this program is based on years of service and classroom learning only - there is no performance incentive included.

We currently have over half of our teachers participating in our "steps" program. Some of their "steps" percentages are well over 5% - independent of any general increase that may be given. So, if we would grant a general increase of 1%, certain teachers would actually realize an increase closer to 6% overall - some even higher. (although no one is into double digits - yet!) As you can see, this "steps" program is a significant addition to a teacher's bottom line here at Swanton. Our rich "steps" program at Swanton has resulted in our district having a teaching staff with the most overall years of experience in the county - it is extremely rare for a teacher to retire from the Swanton Local School District.

Now - let's talk about benefit programs. Currently, our teachers pay between 2% and 4% of the monthly premium cost of their health plan. (monthly costs to them are $12.20/single and $60.89/family) Every other school in Fulton County requires their teachers to pay more - most are over twice as much (the average is around 11% in Fulton County). In addition, other schools' contracts contain what is known as a "spouse carve-out" clause, which requires a teacher's spouse who has access to health benefits at their own place of employment to take it. Swanton does not have that clause. Obviously this policy allows our teachers to keep more of what they make.

To those of you who have asked about our state reportcard, I am sorry to inform you that Swanton has received the "Effective" designation once again (at 92.4%) - we are dead last in Fulton County, and we've been stuck here (at "Effective") for the past 3 years (before then, we were even lower). It is so frustrating to have this happen - especially when you realize that our teaching staff has the most years of experience under its belt in the county. Yet the other schools continue to receive better ratings than we. To take a look at other Ohio schools, you may click here to generate a report through the Ohio Department of Education.
(the other schools in Fulton Co. rate as follows: Archbold: Excellent w/Distinction; Delta: Excellent; Evergreen: Effective at 98.3% {which is a drop from their Excellent rating last year and still higher than us at 92.4%}; Fayette: Excellent; Pettisville: Excellent; Wauseon: Excellent)

I have heard some people say, "well - you get what you pay for" as though our teaching staff is somehow sub-par because we are not at the top of the pay scale in every category. How cruel to insinuate that our teachers care only about the money! While no one expects them to work for free, to suggest that they're only here to bring home a paycheck is wrong. They teach because they love it - they teach because they love that special feeling when the light of understanding and learning illuminates a child's face. It's a job satisfaction that is unique and rare, and it is shameful that some would reduce their efforts to a dollar sign. Just remember: all teachers had the opportunity to take a different path in college, and they chose to teach. Let us not disrespect them by insinuating that they only care about the almighty dollar.

Let me share my personal perspective on teacher salary as it relates to teacher quality. I lived in Toledo for a while, years ago, and I sent all 3 of my kids to Emmanual Baptist Christian School over on Laskey Road. My grandson attends Monclova Christian Academy, and has for the past 4 years. Although I have no personal experience with Catholic schools, I can tell you that teacher salaries at Christian schools in NW Ohio are WAAAY under public school levels. If you ask someone who has their children in a Christian school to explain their reasoning for paying that tuition, one of the things they will mention is the quality of education their child is receiving. Obviously their opinion is that - even with lower teacher salaries at the Christian school - the quality of education is superior.

On Wednesday this week, a negotiations meeting is scheduled between the two teams. Please pray that all parties will act in the best interest of our kids, and community.

Friday, August 22, 2008


A recent press release by the Swanton Education Association has caused some concern in our community. This is just a quick post to let anyone who might actually be reading items on this blog (?!) know that negotiations are continuing with the SEA, with the next meeting scheduled for next week.

For those who would like to see the actual salary rates in place currently at Swanton, you may go to the National Education Association website, where a spreadsheet of salary information was created using 2007-2008 information, and compiled in February 2008. You can be confident that the numbers are current. The link to the Ohio page is here. Teacher salaries are a matter of public record, which makes it easy to verify the statements made by either the Board of Education or the SEA.

The Board is holding a special meeting next Monday night to discuss negotiations.

Please feel free to contact any one of us if you have questions, concerns, or ideas. This district works best when we all work as a team!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Truth or Rhetoric?

This morning I received a copy of a flyer that was prepared by the Swanton Education Association (translation: our teachers' union) and distributed by teacher volunteers to people who came to the Open House sessions last night at Park and Crestwood schools. It makes some pretty strong statements against the Board of Education. Are these statements true? Is it worth our effort to examine them? I think we should take a closer look at what is printed on this flyer, because it is common for false or skewed perceptions to be taken as fact, with the result that the perception becomes "truth" to those who hold that false perception.

So let's look more closely at what is printed on this flyer, and let's take the statements and claims one at a time.

1st statement: Swanton teachers are in favor of restoring programs within the school district, like a drug education program and the Honors program.
Response: Those of you who read our first Board newsletter are already familiar with high school principal Steve Gfell's approach to improving our high school curriculum, and the sound reasoning behind it. In addition, this school district has several drug, alcohol, and tobacco education programs already in place - for example, we have partnered with the SACC in establishing the SEED (Students Encouraging Educated Decisions) program, and some of our other programs begin as early as grade school, such as the D.A.R.E. program. There are other things in progress to help our kids in these areas as well. One successful program from years back (our Youth-to-Youth program) is in the planning stages for a return performance, although all of the details have not been finalized as of this writing.

2nd statement: As a result of practices currently in place, including failure to offer and support solid programs to prepare students for college . . .
Response: Our high school curriculum is the best ever, with the changes implemented by Mr Gfell. He would welcome any resident to call and talk with him about it - please feel free to do so!

3rd statement: . . . unusual hiring practices . . .
Response: The SEA was involved with all of our hiring of administrators, etc. so I'm unsure to what they refer here.

4th statement: . . . failure to support community-led efforts to improve the safety and well-being of your children . . .
Response: hmmm .... Again, it's not clear to what they are referring, but if it's the most recent grant from the Department of Education that we rejected, our residents know full well why we turned that particular grant down. The refusal of one grant certainly does not diminish in any way all of the other things we do in support of our kids!

5th statement: . . . many students leave the area for other schools, and experienced teachers are leaving for other school districts where they can get better pay and benefits.
Response: Wow! There's a mouthful! We did have 2 teachers leave our district to work closer to where they currently live. I honestly do not know what their new wage and benefit package contains, although they would be hard pressed to beat the health insurance plan we have in our district. One of our new teachers left a teaching job in another district to teach in our district because it is closer to his home. As to students 'leaving the area for other schools, I would be interested in the research behind this statement. We have many kids who choose Penta for the last part of their high school years, which is a great option for those who want it. We have kids who live in our district who attend private school or are home-schooled. All districts have these situations.

6th statement: The Swanton Education Association has been bargaining with the school board since April to reach a fair settlement in contract negotiations, but there has been little progress.
Response: That there has been little progress is a TRUE statement. Unfortunately, the SEA set their demands in stone and have refused to budge. Last Friday, we requested that they take our offer to their members for consideration - they refused to do so. With the nature of union negotiations being what they are, I am not at liberty to give any details - but if anyone reading this is a teacher, I urge you to ask your SEA representatives for the facts and numbers. They represent YOU as a teacher, and you have the right to ask them these things. Find out what they are demanding on your behalf.

7th statement: There is money available for a fair settlement, but we see this refusal to be reasonable as just another example of the school board's failure to understand and serve the needs of its community.
Response: Well, I guess it depends on what your definition of "fair" happens to be, right? We have offered a fair settlement in our opinion, but it is not what the SEA has demanded. Again - if you are a teacher, ask your representatives for the details.

8th statement: Just like you have been given many false promises by the school board, so too have the teachers been promised a return to levels and standards set years ago and have not managed to get anything fair in return for their hard work and sacrifice.
Response: Does anyone know what promises they're talking about? I have no idea what prior boards may or may not have 'promised' - but this board has only pledged to reduce the income tax, and that's what we are doing with the levy in November. As to 'returning to levels' from years ago, I sure hope they aren't talking about going back to the fiscal irresponsibility of the past, because this district got itself into serious financial difficulties years ago, and nobody is interested in doing that again! And, again - how do they define, "fair" ? I am hard pressed to figure out what they're angry about!

9th statement: . . . contact your board members and ask them to settle the contract quickly
Response: Please feel free to contact your board members with any question or concern you may have about the district. We welcome your input and participation toward the goal of giving our kids the best educational tools they need to succeed as productive adults in our society.

As to settling the teachers' contract, it takes 2 to tango! The Board cannot force the SEA to accept our offer, no matter how good it is. At the very least, we wish they would take our offer to their membership for a vote - but, thus far, they have refused to do so. Please do not hesitate to let either group - the Board of Education or the SEA - know your views on the matter!

(Oh - one more thing. As you read of the SEA statements that "a unanimous vote" has been taken, please understand that doesn't automatically mean that all teachers were in attendance to vote. A mere 5 people, all voting the same, could qualify as "a unanimous vote" - but clearly it would not reflect the sentiments of the entire teaching staff . . . just something to remember!)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Major Board Decisions

Our August 12th board meeting had two significant items above and beyond the usual. The first was a decision on whether or not to accept a grant from the U.S. Department of Education in the amount of $511,000 over 3 years. This grant held a stated purpose of reducing alcohol consumption in our student body.

No doubt you've heard about this one.

The grant was written by the Swanton Area Community Coalition (SACC), headed up by Neil Toeppe, and including other well-known community persons such as Village Administrator Jon Gochenour, Judge Colin McQuade (past SACC president), Deacon Dzierzawski (Village Council and CEO Community Partnership), Heather Wegener (executive director SACC, and wife of Deacon), and Glen Dominique, among others. Initially, the grant called for $191,625 annually but the feds reduced the administrative costs and brought the annual amount down to $170,525 - which is still a chunk of change. Mr. Dzierzawski tells me that former Swanton school superintendent, Neil Weber, affixed his signature on the initial filing documents.

I was quite surprised to hear Mr. Toeppe state in our meeting that the grant itself had been written in February! This was surprising because it was not seen by any board members until a mere day and a half before a critical deadline with the Dept. of Ed. (back in April) when no one had time to go through the 100 or so pages of verbiage to see exactly how it was laid out. With any grant, there are multiple deadlines to meet for various pieces of the process. (The initial filing on behalf of the district was, indeed, in February 2008).

Anyway, after a weekend media frenzy initiated by Mr. Toeppe's press release, he was given another opportunity to speak to the Board in our public meeting. President Dennis Heban told everyone present that our policy is to allow individuals of the public to speak for 5 minutes, with an additional 3 minutes to respond to questions or comments. Mr. Toeppe took twice that long to read his address to those in attendance.

That is what the public was able to witness. What no one had seen was the past few weeks of the board finally being able to read through the grant - and immediately seeing the disturbing allocation of funds. Here is what the grant summary page stated (remember, these are annual amounts):

Travel & Mileage Expenses: $14,412
Supplies (for the kids): $ 4,705
(including videos, workbooks, etc)
Contractural Payments to SACC: $85,920
(this included salary for full time Community Organizer @$18/hr, salary for part time Administrator @$18/hr, computers/desks/cabinets)
Project Director (for 50% effort): $30,000
Training for health teachers: $ 6,500
Substitute teachers $3,495
(this is for when the regular teachers are out for training)
Annual evaluation fee: $30,000
(this was written for the Community Partnership - originally it had $40,000 in that column, but the Dept of Ed reduced it)
Other Admin. Costs: $6,593

If you'd like to read the summary page for yourself, here is a link to a pdf file: Click Here

That is a seriously simplified overview of the entire grant, but you get the general idea.

So after Mr. Toeppe gave his final speech at the board meeting, we held our vote, and it was a unanimous rejection of this grant. A statement was subsequently read by Superintendent Paulette Baz, giving our position on the issue. And the TV cameramen packed up and left.

The SACC and Community Coalition have initiated other positive things for our kids - the SEED program comes to mind. The school district has other programs in place as well, with the same goal: to educate our kids about the dangers of alcohol and other substance abuse and minimize or eliminate their participation in them.

This particular grant was simply not an appropriate expenditure of tax money, in the opinion of the Board. However, that does not mean that ALL grants are inappropriate, and I'm certain the SACC and Community Coalition will be able to find other grants available that will allow us to continue our partnership in doing all we can to assist our children in making good choices.

The other major item before us last night was a request from the Swanton Public Library to place a 0.5 mil operating levy on the ballot this November. They were chartered under the school system decades ago - in 1935 - and thus need to go through us to place a levy up, even though their funding does not flow through our books.

Their last levy was for permanent improvement, and actually collected more than expected. The BOE was able to give them a little over $67,000 last month - money that had collected under their levy, but had not yet been issued to them due to oddities in state law. Thankfully, Cheryl Swisher was able to find a legal way to get them their money! Hooray!!

We have a GREAT library in Swanton! I know with the state decreasing the funds libraries have been receiving, cutbacks in hours and services have been initiated in Swanton to try and stay afloat. I honestly do not know how their books look, as no financial statements were provided to board members. (no doubt we could get them if we asked) The library board has wrestled with the situation, and came to the decision that an operating levy is necessary.

The awkward thing is that the library is tied to our school district which happens to be in two separate counties - Lucas and Fulton. Lucas County residents already pay taxes to that county's public library system. A tax on the entire school district for the Swanton Public Library would effectively have Lucas Co. residents paying tax to 2 library districts. It's a tough sell to many of those residents.

You would think there would be a way to either exempt those Lucas Co. people in the Swanton school district from Lucas Co. library taxes, OR somehow have those taxes collected turned over to Swanton. Ah - wishful thinking!

The vote from the BOE passed - so there will be a library levy on the ballot this November. I think we were told that it would cost a homeowner around $15 per $100,00 of property value, and should generate slightly over $100,000 annually for the library for each year it is in effect.

Now we look forward to the start of the school year!