Teachers overflowed the El Dorado Union High School District board room Wednesday night to hear the board of trustees refuse to reduce the size of science lab classes to the contract-mandated maximum of 32 students.
The district currently adds up to three students to the maximum, which puts five students on lab benches designed for four — a condition the teachers allege is unsafe in the lab classes, which often use dangerous materials.
The board’s decision flies in the face of a faculty association grievance and a non-binding arbitrator’s ruling in 2011. The board needed four votes to overturn the ruling, and got them from Mary Muse, Lori Veerkamp, Tim Cary and Todd White. Kevin Brown broke ranks with his board, siding with the teachers.
The decision came as a surprise to many teachers, who assumed that a combination of their contract, the arbitrator’s ruling and public opinion — two board members stand for reelection in November — would win the day. But it was not to be.
Board President Cary deferred any explanation for their action pending the release of a “10-page decision” on Friday, Aug. 24, stating, “The board took a long time deliberating on this very complex matter.”
Several teachers accused the board members of dragging their feet on the matter, and even changing the meeting date to discourage attendance.
The meeting was moved from its normal Tuesday slot to Wednesday, Aug 22, at the behest of Cary, who nonetheless left early. The change created a direct conflict with the Ponderosa High School’s annual parent/teacher introduction, Back to School Night.
Faculty Association President Evie Taylor read a letter signed by 45 Ponderosa teachers who had planned to attend the meeting. “We wish to support the process and our contract … On Wednesday we will be fulfilling our contractual duty by attending Back to School Night on Ponderosa campus.”
Still, a polite group of roughly 60 teachers showed up carrying signs saying “honor our contract” and wearing purple shirts in solidarity with 26-year Oak Ridge science teacher Stan Iverson.
The former CSUS Environmental Science Teacher of the Year raised the issue in the fall of 2010, arguing that adding a fifth student at the table creates overcrowding, limits access to curriculum, and creates an unacceptable safety risk in lab situations.
Taylor said the board’s decision made most of her prepared comments irrelevant, concluding, “These teachers are here to stand up for their contract … and aren’t happy with what’s gone on.”
She conjectured that the board rejected the arbitrator’s ruling because non-science class sizes might be affected. “That wasn’t the issue and I thought we made that clear,” she said.
Shop teacher Jack Jordan, who’s also the treasurer of the Faculty Association, stood outside the crowded boardroom and confirmed that the problem was largely limited to Oak Ridge, but said the issue has touched a nerve among teachers who fought for modest compensation gains in recent years while softening their stance on class sizes, which were raised from 30 to 32 students in the 2010 contract.
“So this isn’t just about science classes,” he said. “It’s now about honoring the contract.”
The district has added up to three extra students per Oak Ridge science class since 2010.
Iverson claims the contract provision allowing three extra students was sold to the teachers as a temporary measure during the routine schedule shuffle that occurs during the first few weeks of each semester.
Arbitrator Katherine Thomson ruled in the teachers’ favor in November 2011, interpreting the entirety of the contract verbiage as intending the class-size increase to be temporary, not semester-long, despite not saying so very concisely or indicating a date at which the extra students were no longer allowed.
When the matter went to the board in February, Oak Ridge Principal Steve Wehr cited a lack of evidence that the extra students make the class unsafe.
On the contrary, he argued that enforcing the 32-student limit would deprive students of important classes.
“Decisions on how to run a school should be made on data, not emotions,” said Wehr in Frebruary. “The accident reports don’t indicate any increased risk from putting 35 students in a class designed for 32.”
“It’s not ideal, but it’s better than denying kids classes,” he added.
During the February board meeting, Iverson accused the administration of knowingly putting his students at risk, reminding the board that the labs involve “sharp instruments, heavy objects and poisonous materials.”
He said the administration was willing to accept the risk, but that he wasn’t, calling it a “risk that’s too risky.”
After the August board meeting he said the district delayed their decision until after the 2012 school year began, thus allowing the district to once again put the extra students in science lab classes.
“It’s not done,” he addd. “Our contract says our class size should be limited and an arbitrator agreed. We’ll talk to the California Teacher’s Association and get some direction.”
“Their decision today hurts kids,” Iverson added. “And the parents don’t know it’s going on.”
The board gave no rationale for the decision, deferring to a document that was to be available on Aubust 24.
Update: As of August 29, no such document has been posted to the district Website. Also, the original version of this story carried Oak Ridge Principal Steve Wehr’s quote without specifiying that he said it in February. He confirmed that the quote was accurate, but said he would have softened it for publication in August.