Who is Benefiting in the Grand Rapids Public Schools?

In the negotiations with teachers over contracts, who is benefiting? A strong argument can be made that it is certainly not the students or the teachers.

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At a recent Grand Rapids Board of Education meeting as Superintendent Bernard Taylor of the Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) described his “innovative and creative” ideas for the district, teachers were left wondering if those ideas would leave them without a job. Taylor has said, “I can’t make everybody happy trying to meet the needs of the young people.” Even with a cursory glimpse at the facts, it becomes clear that the only person who’s needs are being met in the Grand Rapids Public School system is Superintendent Bernard Taylor’s, and if Taylor and the school board has their way, a shady public interest group based in Muskegon.

Among his “innovative and creative ideas”–unveiled at his “State of the Schools” Speech that barred hundreds of teachers from being present even though the Grand Rapids Education Association reserved 1,000 seats for the event– Bernard Taylor would have forced GRPS teachers to reapply for their jobs. According to Grand Rapids Education Association (GREA) President Paul Helder, these actions clearly violate the contractual obligations of the District, and cannot be done. The District apparently agreed with Mr. Helder’s interpretation, as they have signed a letter of agreement with the union — acknowledging that teachers will NOT have to reapply, and that administrators will NOT have a say in the reassignment process. Also, Taylor is proposing that all teachers pay $90 a month toward their insurance premiums. The GREA contends that its members have been paying for their insurance for years by accepting concessions in their raises to maintain the same insurance plan. For years, teachers have been asked to take less in raises to keep their benefits only to now be told that they will still have to pay despite their concessions. Teachers already accepted a reduction in the level of service they receive, saving the District some $8,000,000 over the last few years. In addition, Dr. Taylor plans on consolidating Grand Rapids 4 high schools: Creston, Central, Union and, Ottawa Hills. The plan then calls for turning Central and Creston into “hubs for small, specialized programs.” These would become theme-based, quasi-private schools.

These are some of the issues that the GREA must deal with as they work without a contract during bargaining negotiations. They are apart from what is already being mandated by the administration.

The GradeBook program is an “innovative and creative idea” that teachers have been mandated to follow. The District now sets grading standards, has the ability to change student grades without teacher input, and even oversees the application of extra-credit points (teachers are sent an e-mail informing them that they have given over 100%… as if they didn’t know). The biggest problem with GradeBook is that the individuals making the decisions are not in the room, do not know the children, and are not certified teachers in the areas they are overseeing: they are managers with no idea what they are managing. Additionally, the system is extremely unfriendly. It regularly “times out”, crashes, and requires more keystrokes and “flipping about” than it should according to members of the GREA that we spoke with.

Teacher’s use lesson plans to structure how they will present the curriculum to their classes. The District now mandates lesson plan “add-ons”. These lesson plan add-ons are a host of extra documents that elementary teachers are required to fill out in addition to their actual lesson plans. Teachers who fail to comply with the unreasonable burden being put upon them are threatened with being found “insubordinate” (penalties range from documentation in their personnel file to termination) or are intimidated in other ways (out-of-sequence evaluations, etc.). Administrators can use these documents to discredit teachers, and justify their positions, by manipulating the information to blame teachers for the reason why Grand Rapids schools may not be meeting Federal guidelines. The apparent benefit of these “add-ons” to administrators is that they get to look “data-driven” and appear to be hard workers for collecting all this data. The other benefit is that they have something to show to the auditors.

After reviewing both the Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS) teacher contracts and Superintendent Bernard Taylor’s contract, it becomes clear whose interests are being met in this district.

According to Taylor’s contract, he was paid $190,000 between July 1, 2006 and June 30, 2007. Based on satisfactory performance, the Board will also make payments into a 403(b) tax sheltered annuity in the amount $14,250 in ’06-’07, $18,050 in ’07-’08, $20,900 in ’08-’09, and $26,600 for ’09-10. These figures are based on Taylor receiving $190,000 the whole time he works for GRPS, although the contract stipulates that he “shall receive at least the same annual step increments for which Executive Exempt staff” are given 8(b).”

Some other noteworthy items from Taylor’s contract:

* Taylor gets 22 sick days a year with 5 days allowed to be added by the approval of the Board President. Teachers get 10 sick days and 3 personal days. For Taylor, unused vacation days may add up and any unused days will be paid at retirement or severance at $730.77 per day. Teachers are paid a flat rate of $30 per unused sick day upon retirement, nothing upon severance.

* The District has also given Bernard Taylor a $300,000 life insurance policy.

* The District pays for Taylor’s cell phone, computer, fax, and two national trips with an unlimited price tag as long as it’s approved by the board and constitutes a “development opportunity.”

* The contract allows the payment for Taylor’s membership in “a professional organization of his choice, a dining club of his choice, and a service club of his choice.”

* Taylor has a car leased at a $600 a month cost to the District.

Along with all the perks bestowed upon Dr. Taylor, there may also be an outside influence in Bernard Taylor’s push to privatize GRPS and drive out its teachers with unreasonable contract demands. The group is called the Education Action Group. It has connections to the Michigan GOP and the rightwing Mackinac Center.

After briefly scanning the group’s website, it is clear where their interests lie. The group itself claims to be a grassroots organization, but their articles of incorporation state, “The group will be funded by various foundations.” The signatory of the group’s articles of incorporation are none other than the Republican Party’s General Counsel, who lists healthcare among his areas of practice. There is considerable space given to the bashing of unions that represent teachers in Michigan under the “Thug Watch” tab on the site. The “Vice-President of Strategy” is Kyle Olsen. Olson was a political lobbyist, and a campaign manager in a failed Republican campaign for a local seat in Muskegon. Kyle’s brother is the Director for Education for the Mackinaw Center, and D. Joseph Olsen was the Mackinaw Center’s founder and Vice-President of Amerisure Insurance. This may be the reason why the Education Action Group vehemently attacks GREA members’ current insurance plan.

Grand Rapids’ educators continue to work without a contract and fear for the future of their jobs. All the while Superintendent Bernard Taylor enjoys the perks the Grand Rapids School Board has afforded him, a School Board which lacks members with any experience as educators in Michigan public schools (Board member Luis Pena was a physical education instructor in the Dominican Republic). Faced with all the facts it becomes abundantly clear who is benefiting in Grand Rapids Public Schools at the detriment of Grand Rapids children.

Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media // mediamouse.org