Teachers, Wauwatosa School Board seek answers to high turnover

Tosa East losing more than 20 teachers as school year ends

June 26, 2013

With Wauwatosa East High School losing teachers at an unprecedented level, the faculty has petitioned the administration and School Board to investigate and address the causes of teacher turnover.

At the end of the year just finished, 15 Tosa East teachers are leaving the district entirely, and six others from the school are taking jobs elsewhere in the district, said Rob Hamill, a social studies teacher.

Never in his time in the district — "and it would be hard to imagine at any other time" — has Tosa East experienced this much turnover, said Hamill, who has been with the district for two decades. Hamill was author of the letter, which was signed by 67 of the roughly 80 teachers at the school.

The teachers "have noticed with a mixture of alarm and dismay the number of teachers choosing to leave Tosa East and the Wauwatosa School District," the letter says.

The letter is supportive of the leadership of Principal Nick Hughes, calling it "exemplary" and saying that he "has very little to do with the abnormally large number of resignations this year." It also says that Act 10, the state law that curtailed bargaining rights for most public employees, is not solely responsible for most resignations.

"We are losing high quality educators, some with many years of experience and service to the Wauwatosa community. What are the reasons for this exodus? It is our hope that the District leadership team asks this exact question and seriously pursues information from those leaving in order to draw evidence-based conclusions," the letter said.

The kind who used to stay

"We're losing high quality teachers, the kind of teachers...that used to stay in Tosa," Hamill said. "We're losing people primarily in that five...up to 15 year band who, retirement's too far away, and there are other, better options financially."

Hamill said he has met with Superintendent Phil Ertl to discuss compensation and a plan to perform exit interviews with departing teachers, which the district already has begun.

Pay is certainly one problem. The school district and the teachers union reached an impasse in their most recent bargaining sessions, and, in an effort to contract the pay scale, the district implemented a pay plan that rewarded beginning teachers more than experienced teachers; for teachers with decades of experience, raises tailed off to near stagnation.

"There's only a few people who make it to top dollar," admitted School Board President Michael Meier. For most teachers with eight-to-10 years of experience, he said, "you're plateaued for a long time."

Hamill said it's hard to plan when there is no long-term pay structure in place. He said teachers are frustrated not knowing "what they can count on over the next couple of years. I know a couple that probably would have stayed if they had known what the map was."

Pay is only part of it

Pay is part of it, but other things have afflicted teachers. For Hamill, the year just ended was "the most difficult year I've experienced in terms of morale."

At the beginning of the year, a new grading system took effect.

"It took a semester at least to muddle our way through that," Hamill said.

Meier acknowledged that the grading rollout didn't go well.

Hamill also said there are few direct interactions between the administration and teachers, or the board and teachers. Contract maintenance meetings in the pre-Act 10 days performed that function. Hamill said he asked Ertl for regular forums for teachers with the administration, and separate, similar meetings with the board.

A teacher who's leaving

Teacher Carrie Sgarlata, an elementary school teacher involved with the district for 18 years, said she understands the disconnect between the administration and the board and teachers. She told the board Monday that she is leaving the Tosa schools for another district.

"I am extremely concerned about the state of our school district," she said, addressing the board. "Over the last several years I have questioned some of the decisions that have been made by the administration and this board."

She said the administration doesn't listen to teachers.

"My biggest concerns are just the lack of respect for the teachers and their professional judgment and insight," she said. "There's a breakdown of communication between administration and the staff.

"We have many qualified teachers that are very knowledgable about curriculum, and the development of children, especially at the elementary level, and whenever we have spoken up to state our concerns regarding why we disagree with the decisions being made, we're really pretty much shut down."

She said this is a change from the days when she began teaching.

For example, she disagrees with giving five-year-old children MAPS tests three times a year, and having the children, as she said, "contemplate what they were going to do to improve their score."

She said she has received emails from within the district giving her words and concepts she should stress that would help prepare her students for the MAPs test.

Sgarlata also said that the elementary reading curriculum, called Treasures, panned by parents at Monday's meeting, "does not promote critical thinking." One parent called Treasures "dumming down" the teaching of reading.

"Our students are spending less time engaged in meaningful texts that help strengthen higher thinking skills," Sgarlata said.

Sgarlata said she feels a kinship to the Tosa East teachers who departed.

"I think it's very similar," she said. "I think that they feel a lack of collaboration with the school district; that they're trying to move things forward, they're willing to try new things. But there is no respect for their professional knowledge at all."

She said some of them likely left for more money, "but at the same time, lot of them didn't."


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