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Teacher Takedown? 

The president of the TUSD teachers union says morale is crumbling

Tucson Unified School District teachers aren't happy campers following a fight over pay raises that brought frustrations to a head, according to their union.

Rosalva Meza, president of the Tucson Education Association, said many of her colleagues have been dismayed by the aloof, top-down managerial style of Superintendent Roger Pfeuffer, who came into his position promising to "change the culture at TUSD" by being more open and collaborative.

"But, unfortunately, that's been a tougher job than he maybe anticipated," she said. "While he was interim superintendent, it was fine. You know, it was a honeymoon period; everybody's getting along. They had just come out of this big, tumultuous time with (Pfeuffer's predecessor) Stan Paz."

Meza said Pfeuffer has encountered roadblocks to giving teachers the opportunity to collaborate on education decisions, and many teachers also feel TUSD's governing board and top brass aren't going to bat for them as they struggle with federal mandates. Instead, she said, they're telling teachers to just deal with it.

"Having TUSD be a compliant organization, rather than being a leader, and saying, 'Wait a minute, we may have to do this by federal and state mandate, but we don't have to add to the problem'--it's been very disheartening that the leadership so far has been that, instead of being more outspoken," Meza said. "We are one of the largest urban school districts in the country; we should take a leading role."

Resentment bubbled to the surface after TUSD used $5.7 million in extra money given to it by the State Legislature for teacher-salary increases that had already been negotiated, according to Meza. The bill's legislative sponsors and teachers unions had argued that the funds were supposed to be used for salary increases on top of those that had already been negotiated.

Attorney General Terry Goddard cleared TUSD's use of the money as being consistent with the language of the bill, but the feeling teachers had been slighted persists, Meza said.

The result of all this, according to Meza, is deteriorating morale. She said she regularly hears from teachers who are peeved.

"Besides being angry, there's no trust at all at this time," she said. "TUSD can come out and give any message--it may be the most wonderful news. It's going to be met with skepticism."

Calls to Pfeuffer were referred to TUSD spokeswoman Chyrl Hill Lander.

"There might be low morale among some teachers," Lander said. "Other teachers speak very, very highly about working for TUSD." She said the vast majority of teachers are perfectly happy with their jobs and that, in effect, it was her word against Meza's when it comes to morale.

"She can produce teachers that say the morale is awful, and, you know, I can give you the names of teachers that are very satisfied," Lander said. "It's just differences of opinion."

Lander wasn't sure who among TUSD's employees is a TEA member. "I mean, all of the teachers in TUSD are not members of TEA," she said, implying that the TEA couldn't accurately characterize the mood of TUSD employees, because not everyone carries a TEA card.

However, one of the principals Lander suggested the Weekly talk to for a clearer picture of the morale situation noted that almost all teachers at his school are TEA members. "If there are some who are not, I think it's very few," said Christopher Loya, who has been principal at Davis Bilingual Magnet Elementary for four years.

Meza was incredulous about Lander's assertion that TEA wasn't representative of teachers, even though it's their union. TEA's rolls include more than half of TUSD's teachers and other elligible staff, she said, but they represent everyone--even if they're not members.

"Maybe that gives you a little bit of an indication why there's a morale issue," she said. "If they're not in touch with the employees, where they're coming from and what their issues are, then I think that's exactly the reason why we are where we are, and we don't seem to be moving away from that."

On the other hand, Loya said the issue over the state money didn't even register with faculty at his school.

"I hadn't heard anything before it came up," he said.

Loya described the environment at his school, at least, as congenial. He said TUSD has good processes in place for voicing concerns about national education standards, which he believes are the real thorn in the side of teachers.

"We have a very positive faculty," he said. "We have a lot of people here who are very pleased with what's happening in our school. I think, if anything, teachers are overwhelmed with what's being asked of them nationwide. Nationwide, there's an issue in terms of all the different tasks they're being asked to do ... every day."

TUSD governing board member Alex Rodriguez said he takes problems with teacher morale seriously, adding that efforts have been made to bridge any gap.

"As a board member, for me, morale issues are always very important," he said. "It's something that's always in our mind as we conduct our business. Last week, Roger Pfeuffer went out and met with the president of TEA, as well as the TEA board, and they had a very lengthy discussion from what I understand, which is something that this board obviously supports. We need strong collaboration between the school district and all employees, including TEA."

However, Rodriguez said he doesn't "get the same sense" as Meza about morale. As for the pay raises, he said he was optimistic that the attorney general's opinion will lead to clearer language in future bills, specifically detailing how money should be used.

For her part, Lander said the state-money fight is something the district feels is resolved.

"All I can say is that we were pleased with the ruling, but we put it behind us," she said. "We're ready to move forward."

Indeed, TUSD will take a significant step forward when Pfeuffer steps down in about a year. Meza said she's hopeful teachers will have a say in selecting a replacement.

She'll find out how the TUSD governing board plans to go about searching for a new superintendent at their April 10 meeting, Lander said.

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