Wearing #RedForEd T-shirts, several hundred Waterbury teachers showed their strength as a union, their dedication to their profession, and their value to the community they serve when they packed a Waterbury Board of Education meeting last night.

Their coordinated response—including chants of “No more zero!”—came in the wake of the Board’s recent decision to freeze teacher salaries.

“We have reached a troubling crossroads in education,” said Kevin Egan, president of the 1,600-strong Waterbury Teachers Association (WTA), which serves the city’s 20,000 students. He called the board’s refusal of a salary increase “demoralizing to our teachers,” especially in light of the fact that new central office positions have been created in recent months—and that next year, 28 central office administrators will make a combined $3.5 million.

One young teacher held up a handmade poster that read, “Why is there always enough $ for positions downtown?”

Compounding the problem of a zero-percent increase for teachers, health insurance plans continue to increase by 6 percent or more each year, effectively reducing Waterbury teachers’ take-home pay.

“Combined with the anticipated increase in the consumer price index of over 2.5%,” said Egan, “the result is a net loss in income and a slap across the face of every one of our hardworking professionals.”

Stacy Hittenmark, a teacher at Hopeville Elementary School, remarked that she and her colleagues are looking only for fair treatment.

Fellow Hopeville teacher Jason Mastrianni added, “We’re here to show the value in what we do, and we want to be taken a bit more seriously.”

As a union, Mastrianni said, “We are united, and we have found our momentum.”

“When our union bands together, we have each other’s backs,” Hittenmark agreed.

“By the tens of thousands, teachers all across the United States—in places such as West Virginia, Colorado, Chicago and recently Los Angeles, have taken to the streets to advocate for their students and their profession,” said CEA President Jeff Leake, who attended the meeting and stood with Waterbury teachers. “This national outcry is grounded in concern for our students and a hope—indeed a plea—that our leaders will prioritize the education of our students and support those who teach them. Unfortunately, this struggle is no longer the news of another state or city; it is happening here, in Waterbury, and I am proud of our teachers for standing in solidarity and speaking with one voice.”

Teachers giving more, getting less

While the Board seemed to pay lip service to quality education for the city’s children, Egan noted that key to successful education outcomes is “a motivated professional staff that feels respected, valued, and well-compensated to meet the challenges that take place in the classroom every day.”

Those challenges include ever-increasing testing tied to grant funding and a lack of fundamental classroom resources—such as textbooks, copy paper, and curricula, leading Waterbury teachers to spend their own personal funds to provide essential items for their students. Also lacking, said Egan, is critical support for classroom safety and adequate levels of paraprofessional staff for special education students.

He also mentioned two controversial Board proposals to reduce teachers’ prep time.

CEA President Jeff Leake and Waterbury Teachers Association President Kevin Egan, who also serves at CEA treasurer, are pleased so many Waterbury teachers came out to advocate for their profession.

“Not only did you want to slash the overall weekly minutes,” he told Board members, “but in a more stunning proposal, and one of the most insulting contract proposals that I have personally ever seen, you wanted to reduce prep periods from five to four just for elementary teachers—I repeat, just for elementary teachers. I ask, how do you defend that? How is that showing respect for our dedicated, hardworking professionals?”

Egan—who received several standing ovations during his speech—called this combination of Board actions “a perfect storm, causing our teachers stress, anxiety, hopeless frustration, and eventual resignation. How does the Board expect to attract and retain teachers under these adverse conditions? A balance of new and experienced teachers is essential to ensure the long-term stability and success of this school district.”

“We are equal stakeholders under the law, and we will no longer permit our role in the educational process to be marginalized. Just like our colleagues across America, we are ready to take back our profession and stand up for our students.

“This board has the power to alter the course we are on and permanently change the direction of education in this city. Do it for our teachers. Do it for our students.

“We are watching.”

The Board did not directly address teachers’ concerns or respond to their requests, at which point most in the packed room walked out en masse.