With municipal elections only days away, Stratford teachers sent a clear signal to anyone eyeing a seat on the Board of Education.
Their message? We are still seeing red.
Packing the final BOE meeting before Election Day, November 5, teachers wearing #RedforEd stickers and shirts carried signs that read, “Transparency & Trust Needed,” “Educators Will Vote for Change on Nov. 5,” and “Our Strength Is Our Vote.”
The source of their frustration has been the board’s pressure campaign to remedy a 2017-2018 budget deficit by laying off school employees, eliminating buses, or taking away school days. The problem with that plan was not just that students would lose valuable instructional time—and in some cases, their teachers—or that unpaid furlough days would result in lost wages for teachers, paraprofessionals, school nurses, secretaries, custodians, and lunch workers.
The biggest bone of contention was that there was actually no deficit—and no move by the Board of Education to make that clear. In fact, an audit by accounting firm Blum Shapiro showed not only that Stratford Public Schools faced no shortfall at the close of the 2017-2018 budget year but that the district had a positive variance—a surplus of more than $1.6 million. Teachers were not informed of the surplus by the Board of Education or central office; instead, the news came when Blum Shapiro’s report was made public.
For some teachers, such as Tone Saether, the news came too late. Facing a potential job loss, the former third-grade teacher took a special education position at the high school level—and, like her colleagues, two furlough days.
“I was fortunate to have a teaching position available to me,” she says of her unanticipated move from an elementary school to one of the high schools, “but this was a significant change. Teachers were moved out of their schools and classrooms. They were affected personally. And they were affected financially by the furlough. In retrospect, it doesn’t seem necessary that we had to make such drastic changes. It was disruptive, and I’m here so that the board hears our voice.”
Sitting in the front row with Saether was her teacher husband, David Henning.
“We’re looking for transparency,” he said.
Too little, too late
In exchange for lost wages, teachers were given Election Day as a holiday without professional development, a move that Stratford Education Association (SEA) President Michael Fiorello points out is not adequate compensation.
“We have never been made whole,” the Stratford High School English teacher reminded the board on October 28. “Days off do not pay the bills.”
“And it’s more than that,” noted Bunnell High School science teacher Lori Keough, who serves as treasurer of SEA. “About one year ago, when the superintendent and the chief operating officer said that the Board of Ed was running out of money—with a $1.4 million deficit—parents, teachers, citizens of Stratford, and public officials asked questions: How could this be? Where did all this money go? With a budget that was more opaque than transparent, no satisfactory answers could be found. Forty teachers were given notice just before the holiday break that they would be without a job in the coming weeks. Parents talked about their children crying at night because they would lose their teachers or they might have to go to a different school. Without any good choices, teachers voted for furloughs—and things went back to a tense normal for a while…until we found out it was all a big mistake. All that stress and heartache, and a $1.6 million surplus. There has been a huge betrayal of trust between the board and parents, students, and employees.”
Keough implored the board to “heal these relationships,” adding, “Let’s make things better for Stratford Public Schools.”
“Stop saying no to the students of Stratford,” said Stratford parent and former school board member Andrea Veilleux, who wore one of SEA’s “We Are Still Seeing Red” stickers in support of local educators. “Stop saying no to buses to transport children. Stop saying no to teachers by asking them to take furlough days.”
With a crowd of colleagues in red shirts behind him, SEA’s Fiorello added, “You are seeing red because we are still seeing red. With the understanding that the district was in severe financial straits, we agreed to take two unpaid furlough days out of a sense of solidarity with members threatened with midyear layoffs. We agreed because we trusted the information given to us that showed a looming shortfall that could be absorbed in part by the town and in part by our sacrifice. We agreed because as teachers, our students’ education matters to us, and we will always go the extra mile for our students.”
Calling the board’s lack of transparency a breach of trust, he said teachers will be pushing for change at the ballot box on November 5 and looking to future BOE members for honest and timely communication.
“The public,” he said, “is calling for exactly the same thing.”