December 19, 2014

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New Lorain Schools union head facing tough challenges

LORAIN — Jay Pickering said he was “infuriated” when an assessment last month of Lorain Schools by the Ohio Department of Education found a “culture of low expectations” among teachers about their students.

“I’m not denying that in the district the expectations have decreased a lot over the years, but it certainly hasn’t been because of teachers,” said Pickering, new president of the Lorain Education Association, the 450-member teachers union. “Our administrators and upper administration have caused that culture.”

Pickering on Sunday praised Superintendent Tom Tucker, a 28-year Lorain Schools administrator and educator who returned as superintendent in August but was critical of previous superintendents and top administrators during the last decade.

The decade has seen an approximately 3,000-student enrollment decrease in the roughly 7,500-student district. About 85 percent of district students live in poverty, and 87 percent of students entering kindergarten don’t meet minimum state standards.

“It’s difficult as a teacher when your boss is telling you, ‘Hey, maybe you should give them a little break here. Maybe you shouldn’t do so much there,’” said Pickering, a teacher since 1986 and a Lorain teacher since 1988. “Most of us don’t give into it, but there’s a lot of innuendo that you should make it easier.”

Pickering, who succeeded Dean Reinhart as president June 1, said after he took over that a principal wrote a memo to his staff that every student should be promoted to the next grade.

“Teachers were livid,” said Pickering, who wouldn’t name the principal or release the memo. “We fight every day to keep our standards up. It’s often a losing battle, because they (the administrators) have the final say.”

Tucker wouldn’t comment on Pickering’s accusation, but he said his academic recovery plan calls for greater accountability from administrators and teachers.

Pickering takes over at a difficult time. Lorain was taken over by an Academic Distress Commission in April because of the district’s low test scores. The district also experienced massive layoffs and program cuts last year to eliminate a deficit.

About 98 teachers were among the 182 school employees laid off last year, but many were recalled because of resignations, enrollment increases for special education students and the reinstitution of full-day kindergarten after the passage of a levy in November.

In 2007, 243 teachers and 22 teacher’s aides were laid off in budget cuts with many later recalled.

Pickering said layoffs have become an unpleasant rite of spring in recent years because of budget cuts in the school district. The assessment faulted Lorain’s recruitment and retention of teachers, but Pickering said it’s been difficult because of the instability, and he couldn’t blame teachers for finding work elsewhere.

“The most important thing is to bring in income to your families,” he said. “That’s the thing that teachers have to keep in mind at all times.”

Besides a lack of job security, teachers often encounter students who come to school unprepared to learn because of family problems. Pickering said teachers do an excellent job of improving student learning if they are given time, but it doesn’t always translate in test scores, especially when compared with wealthier school districts.

Pickering said the deck is further stacked against poor districts by the Legislature. By funneling public money to charter schools, increasing availability of school vouchers and enacting stricter teacher evaluations, Pickering said the Legislature is attempting to privatize education and bust teacher unions. He said public education shouldn’t be a for-profit enterprise.

“It should be the great equalizer. It should be the way that everybody gets the same education opportunity so they can have an even playing field when they leave school,” Pickering said. “By providing the charter schools and other groups with public money, it’s an unfair playing field for the public schools.”

A lack of a level playing field has been cited by the district for its finances, which have led to significant concessions by the union over the last two years.

The union in 2011 agreed to $2 million in benefit and wage concessions.

In addition, the union agreed to a one-year wage freeze and 10 percent reduction in payments for extracurricular activities, saving an additional $2 million. Pickering is in the midst of contract negotiations that he said he hopes will conclude by the end of next month when the teachers’ contract expires.

Pickering, 50, is serving a one-year term, but said he’d be willing to stay two or three more years before retiring. He hopes the district will be more stable by then.

“We’re hoping things become the agenda of the kids doing well and the teachers being trusted and the teachers being allowed to do their job,” he said.

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.