Last night’s Rochester school board meeting started with a celebration of the accomplishments of a stellar group of young female students, followed by accolades for schools that were on the state’s list of low-performing schools, but are now showing solid academic achievement. The third floor conference room at the district’s central office was nearly filled to capacity with proud family members and onlookers.
But the mood quickly changed from festivity to anger over the district’s new contract with its teachers, and the meeting was shut down by protesters at around 9 p.m. Board members approved the contract in a 5 to 2 vote.
Board members Cynthia Elliott and Mary Adams voted against the contract, but not before about a dozen students, parents, and community activists spoke passionately against a controversial clause in the new agreement.
The clause relates to school safety, student discipline, and personal injury benefits for teachers. It reads, “Crimes committed in schools will be pursued as crimes committed elsewhere, to the extent the District has the right to press charges for those crimes. In all other events, the District will fully support the teacher who chooses to press charges on his/her behalf.”
Many of the parents and students characterized the language as precisely the kind of wording that represents fear and intolerance of black and brown students. And it encourages teachers to view and treat minority children differently than their white peers when they misbehave, they said.
Others spoke of the time and resources that have been invested in a new code of conduct policy, currently in progress, that some people say will help to change disciplinary steps and redirect them from punitive measures toward more restorative justice practices. The new teachers’ contract, they said, turns the work on the new policy on its head.
Melanie Funchess, a mother of two children in the district, said that the board has supported the code of conduct overhaul, so the language in the contract "is a slap and an affront."
Another parent said that she's afraid that her 8-year-old child could end up in the criminal justice system for something as minor as running down a school hallway.
Some board members tried to explain their votes, while board vice president Cynthia Elliott lashed out at teachers at union leaders.
“They have this passion for teachers, not for children,” she said. “They have been selfish bullies and liars.” She said that the district’s children are treated like criminals.
“You can’t teach them if you fear them,” Elliott said. And she urged teachers who felt this way to leave the district.
Board member Mary Adams read from a prepared statement, which reads in part:
“One must consider why RTA leaders would choose to launch that missile at our community when the contract offers many other significant elements: financial and other benefits to teachers; provisions that strongly support meaningful, potentially transformative changes in student supports; and teacher leadership in the pursuit of alternative educational settings. An emphasis on those provisions would have symbolized not a missile, but rather an extended hand to our community and would correctly identify those provisions as actually effective contributors to improving teaching conditions, including personal safety.
“The added contract language, and media emphasis on crime in schools, has caused me to conclude this is about something other than teacher safety. I know that employees already can and do file criminal charges based on incidents in schools, some of which, in the judgment of the courts, are reasonable and some not. I want to be clear that when I insist on confronting and addressing the ongoing reality of pervasive racism and criminalization of youth of color throughout this city and country, this is not an invitation for a dog-whistle phrase about condoning abuse or violence in schools.”
School board President Van White said that he is disturbed by the clause in the contract that says school officials will fully support the teacher.
“What does that mean?” he said. The language is vague, he said, and school officials can already be required to provide things such as a recording of an incident.
He also said that a memorandum of understanding between the district and the union has been signed that says that the new contract can be modified to clarify the language.
And White ordered Interim Superintendent Linda Cimusz to have the new code of conduct policy ready for board review by May 1. But that may not be enough to fend off criticism that some board members cater to the unions.
Numerous questions about the contract remain: Why didn't board members know about the controversial language in the contract until they heard about it from media reports? And how could contract negotiators not realize how that language would be received? The anger it would elicit was predictable.
Toward the end of the meeting, one young man rushed the board members
, shouted obscenities, and then made his way up behind the dais. The outburst shocked and frightened some people, and sent some board members scrambling.
Ironically, it may have unintentionally underscored why the controversial language is in the contract. It also illustrated what usually happens when a disruption occurs in a school setting: instruction is interrupted and people feel uncomfortable – not the ideal environment for learning.
Worse, the events last night and the discussion around the contract seemed to minimize the hard-won achievements of the many students, teachers, and families whose success was deservedly praised earlier in the meeting.
And it was another reminder that if we don’t learn how to replicate the successes in city schools – even when students, teachers, and parents tell us what’s working – we’re doomed to repeat the failures.