B y H a n n a h G l a s s t o n
WHEN 600 TEACHERS and 150 staff members called in sick last Friday, disabling some 17 schools in the Tucson Unified School District, the president of the teacher's union seemed the most surprised of all.
While several teachers said Tucson Education Association representatives surveyed them to see if they would participate in such a job action, Frieda Baker, president of the 5,000-member TEA, said she had no idea there would be a sick-out.
With or without her, the charge is on to bring attention to the fact the school board majority has refused to reopen contract negotiations stalled since July 6. At issue are salaries, classroom size and poor heating and cooling in some schools.
Teachers, angry with the board's refusal to talk, want to know what Baker has been doing to push the board back to the negotiating table.
"This is the slowest I've seen TEA move on something. When TEA wants to, they can move. People are getting tired of waiting," says one longtime teacher and 15-year TEA member. She asked not to be identified, as did all teachers in this story.
Baker replies, "I'm concerned these teachers who say we have not provided strong leadership are not coming forth with ideas." She says TEA has been rallying, speaking to the board on a weekly basis and urging TEA members to wear red shirts as a show of strength. She says she's told members to work within their contracts and not spend their own money on classroom supplies.
Despite those efforts, Baker admits, the board majority made no movement toward reopening negotiations, leaving teachers to swell with anger in the city's largest school district and putting its 62,000 students at risk.
"I never saw (Baker) as a president. She's not a leader. And I don't see good leadership coming up," says one teacher, who pledges she'll walk out "when my TEA representative tells me to," even though she doesn't agree this is the best way to approach the district's unwillingness to bargain. "I would have much preferred we all go out together, because it would be less harmful to kids. But the bottom line is, doing something is better than doing nothing, because if you do nothing you'll get nothing."
Another TEA member and middle school teacher is furious at both the district and TEA. He's angry TEA has not made their case more public. He wants taxpayers to know he doesn't have books for his kids, that classes are overcrowded, that he has to carry a towel around, so "I don't drip sweat all over the kids because it's so hot in my classroom."
He says TEA has failed to tell the community the contract issues are about more than money.
"This is not about money. It's about out-of-control kids, class sizes, heating and cooling, textbooks. But the public doesn't know what's going on because TEA has not gotten out and told them."
He says he won't walk out if his TEA representative tells him to. "I would never do a sick day unless it would serve a purpose. This turns the public against you because they don't know what you're doing, and that's TEA's fault. If I were the public, I'd be pissed."
Baker says she knows there are union members who say TEA is not doing enough. "I'm saying, what do you want us to do? What is enough? If there is something you want us to do, you need to let us know so we can act on it. There probably are some people who are tired of waiting. But I need to hear from them. If they want to strike, then I need to hear that."
Baker, a veteran of the 1978 teacher's strike in TUSD, says she hasn't heard of any further action regarding teacher sickouts. "I hope that does not happen," she says.
She intends to continue meeting with the board and will go to the community to discuss the "lack of respect the board has toward parents, teachers and their employees."
Unfortunately, Baker may find herself playing catch-up with board members who have already begun to meet with parents at individual schools to explain their side of the policy issue.
One teacher says TEA people organizing the walkouts may not want Baker to know. "Sometimes TEA can be as calculating as the district," she says.
If more teachers walk out--as they did on Tuesday--Baker will support them. "This is the way they've decided to vent their frustration and I don't have a problem with that."
Kind of an I-wish-you-wouldn't-but-if-you-do-I'll-still-love-you attitude. That sounds nice, but is it leadership?
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