A sea of teachers dressed in red and carried homemade signs at a Harrisburg school board meeting on Tuesday night, protesting what they perceive as unfair pay.
Hundreds of teachers flanked the standing-room-only gymnasium and wore “Red for Ed,” demanding to know why the school board denied a grievance settlement last week that would have raised the pay of veteran teachers.
In response, the district claimed that the pay raises would be prohibitively expensive for the struggling district, saying, in a prepared statement, that “the settlement costs would run into the millions of dollars because of its continuing impact on salary costs in the district.”
At the heart of this fight is a set of intersecting problems: the Harrisburg school district’s budget issues, complaints of low pay and high teacher turnover rate. Veteran teachers demand that their pay reflect the time they’ve invested in Harrisburg schools, but the district asserts that veteran teachers are already being paid competitive wages.
“The more veteran the teacher is at Harrisburg, the more competitively they are paid under the negotiated salary schedule,” the statement read, drawing uproarious boos from the crowd. “The board also believes that if the [Harrisburg Education] association was so concerned about the turnover problem in the district, it would have recommended that this be addressed in our ongoing labor contract negotiations where the teachers have refused to make a salary proposal after 14 months of negotiations.”
“We haven’t refused anything,” Barksdale responded. “We have to settle this before we agree on anything.”
When asked if she was surprised by the large teacher turnout, Barksdale gave an emphatic, “no.”
“I’m not surprised at all,” she said, saying that teachers are fed up and want to know why their agreement wasn’t upheld.
The events culminating in last night’s display began in August when the Harrisburg Education Association filed a grievance against the board, claiming that veteran teachers were underpaid.
In it, they stated that the district had hired new teachers at rates higher than veteran teachers with equivalent experience, violating their contract. In January, the union reached a verbal agreement to raise the salaries of some of the lowest paid veteran teachers, but the board voted down that contract last week.
Teachers now are left wondering if their grievance will ever be resolved. In the meantime, the school district continues to suffer persistent vacancies and reliance on long-term substitute teachers to fill in.
At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, resident Douglas Thompson-Leader read a statement from Noel Gsell, a first-grade teacher who recently left the school district. In the statement, she said that, when she started teaching in the district, she was “ready to change the world,” but left after feeling abandoned by the district with little training or support for her classroom.
“The administration made me feel… that it was my fault for not being able to control my classroom,” she said, “Harrisburg school district, it’s your fault for not providing a safe space for our kids. It’s your fault that our students aren’t getting the help they need, and it’s your fault that I left and other good teachers continue to leave.”