Teachers press for contract vote

Jefferson Parish teachers packed Tuesday’s school board meeting to show support for a contract vote that they hope will happen next month, waiting close to four hours before the board addressed the issue.

The teachers unanimously ratified the new contract at a March 26 meeting, but prior to that meeting Jefferson Parish School System board president Larry Dale said that there were still issues that needed to be addressed and the board was not ready to approve any contract.

Superintendent James Meza said then that the negotiations were not at a point at which the district had agreed on the current draft of the contract.

A vote was not on Tuesday’s agenda, but the issue was brought up at the end of the meeting in a first reading from board member Etta Licciardi.

Jefferson Federation of Teachers President Meladie Munch said the contract basically had been finalized with the administration’s negotiating team in December and that it was time to move forward so that a new agreement could by approved before the end of the school year.

The union has been working without a contract since the board voted to let it expire last June.

During public comments, University of New Orleans professor Steve Striffler said that both sides had negotiated as promised, starting from scratch, and urged the board to articulate any outstanding issues and approve a contract so that teachers can focus on educating students.

Teacher David Prentice said that there was nothing sneaky about the contract and that board has had plenty of time to review the agreement. When the vote comes up, “Please don’t delay it,” he said. “There’s no reason for that.”

Nicole Meariman, a college student planning to teach in Jefferson Parish, told the board that its demonstration of support and understanding by approving an agreement will increase confidence in her career choice.

“The quality of my future depends on having mutual respect. I’m expecting you will all do the right thing,” Meariman said.

After the meeting, teacher G. Perry said she attended the marathon meeting because she knows the importance of ratifying the collective bargaining agreement and is confident it will be in place soon.

The contract “allows the system to be fair and gives due process in the event that anything happens. We should have due process,” Perry said.

At the beginning of the meeting, Jefferson Parish President John Young spoke to the board about a new partnership with Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana to recover unused food from the schools to distribute to those in need. Young described the pilot program as a way to reduce waste and serve the most vulnerable in the community without costing the schools any money. The board voted to approve a memorandum of understanding for the program.

A heated debate arose over the vote to approve the calendar for the 2013-2014 school year, largely centered on the fact that the first day of school is scheduled for a Friday.

“If school is starting on Friday that tells me I ain’t gonna go until Monday,” board member Ray St. Pierre said.

Meza said there was no difference between enrollment numbers on the first day versus the second day, but if students don’t attend school on the first day, they have to be taken off the rolls and then re-enrolled if they show up Monday — a large administrative task.

The reason given for starting on Friday was to optimize the number of days before testing.

“It’s not going to do any good, but I’m voting against the calendar,” St. Pierre said, and did, though it passed with approval from the rest of the board.

The board also approved an initiative to convert five K-5 elementary schools into K-8 schools, adding one grade per year starting in the fall 2013. The schools tentatively selected to convert to the new model are Chateau Estates Elementary, Estelle Elementary, J.C. Ellis Elementary, Lincoln Elementary and Matas Elementary.

Meza touted the positive results thus far at the first K-8 model, Allen Ellender School, as “shocking.”

Looking at data from the past 20 months, Meza said that there is evidence of a difficult transition and a drop in performance when students move from 5th grade to 6th grade and that the district lost 2,000 middle school students. “We have to do something with middle schools,” Meza said. “Middle schools aren’t good places.”

He also described a problem of overage middle school students acting out in frustration and causing discipline problems and disruptions.

Meza said that a K-8 environment would have more personalized education and a higher level of care and concern.

Licciardi said that while initially decisions were made on numbers and facility capacity, now academic achievement factors can drive the organization of schools. With Ellender, she said she received an outpouring of feedback from parents who wanted their children in a K-8 school.

St. Pierre expressed concern about athletics being available to middle school students in an elementary facility.

Board member Cedric Floyd wondered whether the changes, as well as recent school closures, could violate the agreement made with the federal court following the 2011 closing of the decades-long desegregation case. The board’s three-year agreement to maintain reforms includes stricter attendance zone policies, the establishment of magnet schools, an increased effort to recruit black teachers and public updates on the progress.

The K-8 initiative passed, with only Floyd voting against.

Floyd also was the only one to vote against several other facility-related items, again citing noncompliance with the agreement with the federal court in terms of funding sources used and promised investment into certain schools and neighborhoods.

The board also approved an Advanced Placement initiative, which will provide AP and pre-AP programming at Fisher Middle and High School, Grace King High School and West Jefferson High School next fall.

In a first reading, Floyd requested the invalidation of Meza’s contract, which the board approved in December. Floyd was absent from that meeting, citing medical reasons. Floyd said that retroactively changing the pay terms, and the “hefty pay raise” violates the law. He detailed the salary and benefit numbers of the highest paid superintendent in the state — totalling what he said was a pay raise of 27 percent and an annual salary of $248,000 plus numerous benefits he totalled at about another $100,000.