‘We are exhausted and we feel disrespected’: DeKalb school union reps criticize lack of support from district leaders

Overcrowded DeKalb classrooms could spur 2022 referendum for new elementary school, say District 428 officials

Students at Sycamore Middle School head for their buses Friday, Sep. 17, 2021 at the end of the school day.

DeKALB - Huntley Middle School teacher Kevin Boland said DeKalb teachers are “exhausted and feel disrespected” by what he said was lack of support from leadership amid ongoing pandemic-era staffing challenges.

District leaders say a strategic plan to address staffing shortages and an uptick in enrollment could include a 2022 referendum for a new elementary school.

“In a staff meeting earlier this year the question was asked how many of you were considering quitting? Nearly everyone in the room raised their hand,” Boland said. “We are exhausted and we feel disrespected. Class sizes across the district are sky high. A small class size is 34.”

Boland was one of three DeKalb District 428 local teachers and staff union representatives who criticized district leadership at Tuesday’s school board meeting. The representatives said that despite union efforts, district leaders have not returned to the bargaining table amid union calls for accommodations. The third pandemic-era school year has brought with it classrooms filled beyond capacity, school bus driver shortages and a statewide COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

District officials said overcrowded classrooms and an influx of new students could spur a 2022 referendum for the creation of a new elementary school.

The proposal was part of a strategic plan update shared by the district Tuesday, shared in a letter read by board chair Sarah Moses.

“We have nearly run out of space and brought in the demographer and the architect,” Moses said. “Now, we await the results to guide us in the direction of our next move.”

District staff had to accommodate an influx of more than 100 new students who registered at the last minute for the 2021-2022 school year late in the summer. Additional accommodations necessary included moving music classes to “an outdoor mobile space” and art classes to “a cart,” Moses said.

The district currently has a threshold of 28 students per class for kindergarten through fifth grade. For sixth through 12th grades, that threshold is 35 students per class, Moses said.

Mary Ellen Larsen, study hall assistant at DeKalb High School spoke on behalf of the support staff union, saying she and her coworkers have worked in person throughout the majority of the pandemic.

“Many of us have been impacted by COVID-19,” Larsen said. “What we asked during impact bargaining was to provide us with assurance that if we were unable to work remotely should we or our family contract COVID that the district partner with us to maintain job security. The majority of us are vaccinated or complying with the state mandate to test. We are doing our part and ask that you the board be leaders in our community and prioritize a COVID agreement to ensure we are protected during this time.”

Dina Sweet, who teaches English Language Arts at Clinton Rosette Middle School, said she represented on Tuesday “groups of teachers, assistants, secretaries, maintenance and custodial” workers.

“We’re concerned about the culture and climate in the district,” Sweet said. “We brought several proposals to the board and administration to collectively impact bargain and not only has the district not approved them, but has taken an exorbitant amount of time in responding to them. All of the proposals seek to ensure that staff are given flexibility and respect regarding COVID related issues. This in turn allows staff to be more available for the students of our district.”

Sweet said fed up district staff are taking leaves of absences, leaving the district for other positions or leaving education all together.

“The staff that remains feels as though their needs, not wants, but needs, are trivialized, and that when there is opportunity to acknowledge these concerns the board and administration ignores them,” Sweet said.

In response Wednesday, District 428 spokesperson Valeria Pena-Hernandez -- a former DeKalb school board member who was recently hired as the family and community coordinator and communication contact -- said district leadership has met with the DeKalb Classroom Teachers’ Association at different capacities 10 times since July 5.

She confirmed the district did receive verbal and written notice of impact bargaining on Oct. 4, and administration spoke to the school board about it on Oct. 5.

Pena-Hernandez said the district’s administration and human resources responded to the DCTA in writing about impact bargaining.

From the end of the 2020-2021 school year to present, there have been 24 resignations in the district, said Pena-Hernandez. She said that numbers appears to be slightly higher than previous years, however the number of full-time employees districtwide has increased.

Boland said recent hires at the district administrative level contrast with asks for more hires at the instructor and support staff level to aid overburdened staff.

“The response that we get from the administration and school board is that ‘We do not see this as a change of working conditions’,” Boland said. “That may be true in this building but spend a week in the shoes of a bus driver, an assistant, a custodian or a teacher and then tell me that our working conditions have not changed.”

During her superintendent’s report Tuesday, Superintendent Minerva Garcia-Sanchez said the board recently approved providing every district teacher with $1,000 to be used for classroom resources.

The district is also conducting a demographic study, Moses said, with results expected by the end of the year. Moses said the district will use it to better inform “changing growth patterns...in the coming years.”

“We recognize that the limitations of facilities and finances will potentially always create challenges,” Moses said. “Yet, we must be creative. We must look to each other and our community and come together to ensure bright futures for our children by supporting staff and using tax dollars responsibly because that is our priority.”

As part of the district’s strategic planning, a task force was created during the 2019 union contract negotiation period to help address classroom sizes and facility accommodations. The task force consists of board members, union members and community members, Moses said. As part of the recommendations by that task force, the district is considering adding an additional K-5 section to every elementary school except for three. The district currently has eight elementary schools. Middle school space could also be expanded.

“There would be the option of a potential referendum to build a new elementary school, if necessary,” Moses said. “Further clarity will be provided by the results of the demography study and the architect’s findings and recommendations.”

The goal is to lower the classroom size thresholds: 28 to 25 for K-5 classrooms and 35 to 30 for grades six through 12 “when facilities and budgets allow,” Moses said.

Boland called to the district to prioritize classroom staff.

“All of this begs the question again, where do our priorities lie?” Boland said. “How will you build trust with the staff who feels their voice are not being heard and they’re not being respected?”

This story has been updated as of 6 p.m., Oct. 20, 2021 with additional information related to the timeline of bargaining with the DeKalb Classroom Teachers’ Association as well as resignation numbers from Valeria Pena-Hernandez, family and community coordinator and communication contact.

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