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What's Driving Teachers' Protests Of JCPS In Louisville This Week

Every morning, Lisa Dunn hands out hugs, high-fives and friendly hellos to students filing off the bus and into Breckinridge/Franklin Elementary School on Payne Street.

"It helps them to have a good day," she says.

Dunn, like many teachers here, says she loves these kids. She wants them to have a good day, get a solid education and become successful.

Supporting students is a key role of teachers and staff, Dunn says. But many teachers here at Breckinridge/Franklin worry they're not getting that same support from school district officials.

This week, teachers across the Jefferson County Public Schools system are sharing that sentiment publicly. Hundreds are turning out for morning "walk-in" protests — before the school day begins — scheduled to run all week at more than 100 of the district's 155 schools. They're showing up and wearing red to call out district officials for two separate issues that are causing concern.

Salary Freeze On The Horizon?

Late last month, district officials released the findings of a comprehensive study of JCPS salaries. It found teachers and thousands of other district employees are paid more than the market rate -- about $100 million more, collectively, says Allison Martin, spokeswoman for the school district.

District officials established a community task force to examine the findings, and that task force recommended freezing salaries for employees earning more than $14 an hour to allow for a total reexamination of the district’s pay structure, Martin says.

Absolutely nothing is finalized yet, Martin says.

But the mere mention of freezing salaries is not sitting well with teachers.

"If you really consider the amount of hours teachers put in, we’re not paid this high premium above the work we do," says Angela Magnuson, a fifth-grade social studies teacher at Breckinridge/Franklin. "I think we are paid a good, living wage. But to freeze my pay, what does that say, what does that say about us."

Magnuson says teachers pour hundreds of dollars of their own money into their classrooms. And she doesn't think teachers get the respect they deserve from lawmakers and district officials.

"It feels like we’re always on the line, about to be punished for something when, really, our profession is not quantifiable, what we do every day is about love, about building people, building individuals," she says.

Martin says the salary study and the recommendations that have followed are being misinterpreted. She says district officials have no qualms with paying teachers more than the market rate.

"We should be doing that," she says.

The issue, she says, is that the study found the district is paying above the market rate for more than 7,000 non-teaching positions. Adjusting those salaries could save the district about $53 million that Martin says could be directed back to classrooms.

David Jones Jr., chair of the district's Board of Education, says that's the big takeaway from the salary study.

"[It] suggests a path for investing significantly more dollars in teachers, in schools and in student supports," he says.

Code Of Conduct Changes

Meanwhile, the district’s code of conduct advisory committee also presented preliminary findings to the JCPS Board of Education late last month. Those findings could potentially alter the code of conduct, leading to what some teachers believe are reduced penalties for certain kinds of disruptive behavior.

Among the proposals was to eliminate suspensions for some violations, such as foul language and dress code violations. They would also reduce long-term suspensions for infractions such as fighting.

Martin says any concerns that the student code of conduct is being loosened to allow for more disruptive behavior in classrooms are premature. She says the code of conduct committee still has six weeks of meetings before presenting final recommendations to the school board.

Martin says the committee is working to realign the code of conduct in a way that would enhance clarity and eliminate any chance for subjectivity among teachers. The end goal is to craft a clear, concise code of conduct that's more fair to students and teachers, she says.

Jones says nobody is satisfied with how the current code of conduct system is working, and change is imperative.

"There's a strong feeling that we've got to start building up from our values and say 'what are we really doing in the discipline arena,'" he says.

Some teachers, like Alicia Grady, who teaches third grade at Breckinridge/Franklin, say any changes that afford problem students an easier path back to classrooms would be regressive.

"We want a safe environment for our students, and when children are not getting consequences, it’s not a safe environment," she says.

Grady says teachers should be able to come to work and not be threatened by students throwing chairs or fists. And right now, that's all too common, she says.

Compensation and safety are basic elements of maintaining a classroom, Grady says. "We're just asking for what we deserve."

Jones, of the school board, says the board doesn't plan to vote on either proposal at its May 10 meeting.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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