Possibility of teacher layoffs in Hamilton hits home

2011-04-20T21:01:00Z 2011-04-21T06:27:15Z Possibility of teacher layoffs in Hamilton hits homeBy DAVID ERICKSON - Ravalli Republic Ravalli Republic
April 20, 2011 9:01 pm  • 

Ten days have passed since all 27 non-tenured teachers in the Hamilton School District received letters warning that their contracts may not be renewed next year because of uncertainty regarding the general fund budget.

Last week, district superintendent Duby Santee said that in a worst-case scenario, the school would face a $500,000 deficit, meaning the possibility of losing 14 full-time-equivalent staff positions.

Now, the reality has begun to sink in for teachers, and the uncertainty is weighing everybody down, according to John Stromberg, head of the Hamilton Unified Teachers union.

"It's pretty scary," Stromberg said. "There's a lot of concern. If we lose, say, 11 teachers, it's going to be tough on everyone. From the students' standpoint, from the teachers' standpoint, it's going to mean bigger classrooms. You know, even for the administrators, it's going to be tough, because they will have to do all the reshuffling and stuff. I'm kind of holding out hope that we don't get to the worst-case scenario, but right now, there is a lot of uncertainty."

There are 115 teachers employed in the Hamilton School District. Teachers gain tenure once they sign their fourth consecutive contract. The base salary for a new teacher in the Hamilton School District is $28,600, and the maximum salary for a teacher with a master's degree and 20 years of experience is $52,777, with a longevity stipend of $645 coming every year after the 21st year.

"We have not had an increase in our base salary in the last two years in Hamilton, and if we don't increase this year, it would be three consecutive years," Stromberg said. "We are negotiating our contract this year, but we are far from the highest-paid in the state. We get steps (salary increases) for each year of experience, and if you get more educational credits, you move over on the salary schedule, but the base salary doesn't increase."

Stromberg said the consequences of losing so many teachers would extend beyond the classroom.

"A lot of our teachers also have kids in the district," Stromberg said. "If we lose 11 teachers that each have two kids, that's 22 kids less in our district enrollment. That would put another spin on our funding dilemma. The community itself would see a pretty good economic downturn from those positions being lost."

Stromberg said the union has discussed several options for avoiding teacher layoffs, but they can't do much until they know what the state Legislature is going to do.

"We don't have anything firm yet," he said. "About the only thing there would be to do is if we agreed to take a pay freeze. There has been some discussion of that. We are actually negotiating our contract this year. We haven't gotten to the money issue yet. We're waiting on the budget situation. The bottom line is most teachers agree that we are going to have to do whatever we can to save as many teacher jobs as possible, so we'll see what happens."

The district is requesting a technology levy of $235,000, and ballots were mailed to all registered voters on April 18 and must be returned by 8 p.m. on May 3.

Virginia Opitz, a Hamilton Middle School teacher, has been a vocal supporter of the technology levy. She has been holding a sign every morning in the Hamilton Safeway parking lot urging people to vote. She said although she now has tenure, she feels the pain of her fellow teachers who don't know if they will have a job next year.

"That happened to me when I was a non-tenured teacher, and it's really scary," Opitz said. "I feel for them because a lot of them have youngsters to support and a family. While I realize the district has to do that, because of the state budget situation, it makes me really sad."

Opitz said she hasn't gotten the sense that any of her fellow teachers are panicking just yet.

"They are taking it in stride," Opitz said. "They are hoping that the worst doesn't come to be."

Stromberg said he has encouraged many non-tenured teachers to keep their eyes open for other jobs, but that is of little help because there aren't many teaching jobs available right now.

"That's one of the things I did tell people, was don't hesitate to look around," Stromberg said. "If they see something they like, I would take the job. But to be honest, teaching jobs are pretty tight to come by right now. I looked at the Office of Public Instruction website at job openings, and usually this time of year, there are pages and pages, and there really isn't any. It used to be that people were willing to change districts, but not so much anymore. The teachers in Hamilton are happy to be here, so they are just going to ride it out and see what happens. I haven't had anyone tell me they have taken another job yet."

The Hamilton School Board will meet on May 9, at which time teachers will be told if their contracts are not renewed. Stromberg said he thinks there will be at least one special meeting between then and June 1, when all teacher contracts are automatically renewed for the next year.

Stromberg said he feels like the Hamilton School District has been fairly prudent when it comes to making financial decisions.

"It could be a lot worse," Stromberg said. "Our school board has had to make some pretty tough decisions, and Mr. Santee has too. They have been very cautious with what they spend money on. For example, when we had the stimulus money come around, they could have put it in salary, but they knew it was going to be gone in two years. They had the foresight to use it on one-time expenditures, which is what that money was intended for. Our community should be proud with what our school board and superintendent did at that time. It saved us some big-time heartbreak. Other districts in the state spent that money on teacher salaries, and they had to make some tough decisions. As crazy as things get in school board meetings, they did a good job there."

Reach reporter David Erickson at 363-3300 or david.erickson@ravallirepublic.com.



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(7) Comments

  1. 1988
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    1988 - April 21, 2011 9:08 pm
    The article did not say that the teachers have not had a raise in pay for three years, it said the base salary has not increased in three years. Some teacher, not all, have had a raise by getting a step and some get a raise for moving over a lane(10 semester graduate credit) as the salary schedule provides. However, there are a number of teacher that have had no salary increase for the past two years.
  2. 406406
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    406406 - April 21, 2011 6:40 pm
    Honestly, I've gone through the Hamilton school system and could pick out far more than 11 teachers to be laid off. There are plenty of teachers (both tenured and non-tenured) that the school system could afford to lose. There are teachers who can't teach their subject area adequately and are frustrating to the students. I have sat through several classes throughout the years. I know when I'm learning and I know when I'm wasting my time.

    That's not to say that there aren't a number of great teachers. There are teachers who taught me their subject area with expertise and made things easy to understand. There are a handful of teachers who will resonate with me for the rest of my life and who I consider probably the best instructors I will ever meet. Teachers like Mr. Shepherd, Ms. Antinolli, Mr. Favero, Mr. and Mrs. Faris, and Mr. Schmidt are the types of instructors who know what they are doing in the classroom. Unfortunately, most teachers in Hamilton are not like them.

    As for the 98% graduation rate, well, it's not hard to graduate from Hamilton. Basically, if you don't drop out, you get to graduate. It's not the "wonderful" teachers. I have seen kids who should have failed classes walk across the stage at graduation. It's not a matter of great teaching; it's a matter of "let's just get the kid out of here."

    Just a thought: maybe money wouldn't be such a problem if they cut back on administration. Last time I checked, there were 10 administrators; each getting paid more than they deserve. Get rid of two and you'd have more than enough funding. Or maybe cutting back on the number of "paraprofessionals" and secretaries would do the trick. Either way, there should be changes coming to Hamilton schools and not a desperate attempt to keep everything the way it is.
  3. Corrine Gantt
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    Corrine Gantt - April 21, 2011 4:27 pm
    It's true that Hamilton High School has a 97 to 98% graduation rate. The district attributes that to the fact that we have great, motivated teachers who truly care about the students. The steps that rrtrrt refers to is about a ten to fifteen cent an hour raise per year. Because the teachers are required to keep up on their education requirements, it's hardly a raise.
    An overall wage reduction by the staff would require nullification of valid legal contracts.
    The article outlines the worst case scenario. The trustees are being responsible by reacting to this possibility. Now is the time to contact your senators and representatives who are currently taking a 5 day break to let them know that you support education. The decision is up to them. I've heard it said that the funds are there, so the pain they are causing is really an exercise in dueling political positions.
    If the technology level passes, it will go a long way to helping the teachers keep their jobs, because it will free up the general fund money that currently is being spent on the technology expenses.
    Again, this is outlining the worst case scenario. If the funding turns out to be adequate from Helena, the teacher's jobs will be saved.
  4. Igotone
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    Igotone - April 21, 2011 3:35 pm
    Well, I think they should cut the Superintendent's position. $80,000. Look and see how many teachers that would pay. I also think they should put tenure to decied who stays and who goes. Tenure only allows schoold to keep teachers who no longer have the passion for teaching. Makes them to comfortable in their position.
  5. Downstream Observer
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    Downstream Observer - April 21, 2011 11:12 am
    Times are tough and this situation is not unique to only this school district. Several people that I know in the Bitterroot are earning about one third to one half of what they did three years ago. Is the union willing to go along with some type of overall reduction across the board for all the teachers? Would all the teachers be willing to accept this? I know,I am supposed to call the District office and ask. Sometimes, the "political speak" in the blogs is a little tough to digest.
  6. rrtrrt
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    rrtrrt - April 21, 2011 7:26 am
    I feel for the teachers there because they have a good staff. In the article they say they haven't had a pay raise in three years but they get a step increase each year. That is a pay raise. If the levy passes will that keep the teachers their jobs?
  7. Spasticmomma
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    Spasticmomma - April 20, 2011 10:04 pm
    I just heard a couple days ago that Hamilton High School has a 98% graduation date? So why jeopardize that by letting teachers go. Whether they are Elementary or Jr. High teachers, they ALL have a hand in that 98%. They all helped thes students get there and graduate.
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