SSD teachers picket as district approves 2018 budget, raises

Special+District+teachers+picket+outside+of+Neuwoehner+High+School+in+Town+and+Country.

Special District teachers picket outside of Neuwoehner High School in Town and Country.

Teachers held signs last week outside the Special School District Board of Education meeting at Neuwoehner High School in Town and Country, as seen above in this photo courtesy of the SD NEA Facebook page.

By Gloria Lloyd
News Editor
glorialloyd@callnewspapers.com

As the Special School District approved its budget last week for next year, its teachers picketed outside.

SSD teachers and support staff say they feel unappreciated and underpaid as the SSD Board of Education unanimously approved the $460 million 2018-2019 budget, which heads to the district’s Governing Council for final approval next week. The budget has a deficit of $11 million and calls for 3-percent raises for teachers, but negotiations are still underway after 14 meetings.

About 90 teachers, staffers and supporters wearing red packed the May 22 meeting, which was held at Neuwoehner High School in Town and Country. They carried signs that read “Students are not a business.”

An SSD resource teacher at Bierbaum Elementary in the Mehlville School District, Tonya Whitley, said that teachers are facing more and more challenges every day. At Bierbaum, a handful of students are missing more than 1,000 minutes of adult support they should be receiving, she said. Teachers are missing their lunches and planning times to spend time with students to make up for it. Teachers are seeing more and more students with severe behavioral concerns.

“While we are constantly dealing with students in crisis, our other students suffer, and it impedes their ability to make adequate progress on IEP (individual education plan) goals,” Whitley said. “We advocate for more resources, we advocate for more staffing.”

In a statement the Missouri National Education Association, or MNEA, sent on behalf of the Special School District National Education Association, or SD NEA, SSD teachers said SSD should focus more on teachers than other priorities.

Specifically, the SD NEA said they want the district to prioritize students and educators over reserves. The district is stockpiling money in reserve from its 2012 tax-rate increase, Proposition S, instead of using it to attract and retain teachers like voters intended, they said.

The district responded, “SSD has an obligation to be a good steward of the money entrusted to it by taxpayers, including keeping a strong and appropriate fund balance.”

The $243 million reserve fund is 60 percent of its budget. That is far higher than the county average of roughly 29 percent. But when it is taken into account that much of that is earmarked for the district’s facilities plan, the district has 39-percent reserves, SSD officials said.

“St. Louis County voters approved the tax assessment to better fund our students’ education, not to increase the district’s account balance,” the SD NEA said in the statement. “As education professionals, we feel this money should be better spent helping our students succeed.”

The organization would be picketing along Clayton Road, they said, to “advocate for prioritizing students and quality educators over business profits.”

The SSD communications staff said they were unable to comment about teacher raises due to ongoing negotiations, but they provided the Call with a history of raises in the district. The teachers have received a 13-percent increase over the last four years, with raises of 3.5 percent, 3 percent, 3.5 percent and 3 percent.

“SSD has worked hard to maintain competitive teacher salaries,” the district said, and teachers are above the county median.

One SSD paraprofessional who spoke, Elizabeth Powell, apologized to the board for the black eye she said she received from a student the day before.

“Right now we’re understaffed and we have violent kids,” she said. “That is why staff is leaving at the rate they’re leaving.”

The SSD board and Superintendent Don Bohannon enforced a policy that limits public comment to 30 minutes per meeting, so some teachers who signed up to speak did not get a chance to say anything.

The board approved the budget in the consent agenda.

But the ultimate decision will be made by the Governing Council, a 22-member oversight board that consists of a representative from each of the districts in St. Louis County, which approve the budget and elect the SSD board.

The representatives for area districts are Mehlville Board of Education Vice President Larry Felton, Lindbergh Board of Education Vice President Jennifer Miller, Affton Board of Education’s Michele Burford, Bayless Board of Education President Jeff Preisack and Hancock Board of Education Treasurer Garrett Mees, who serves as the chairman of the Governing Council.