School bus safety

Fatal Tennessee school bus crash reopens conversation on the cost of seat belts

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

The deaths of at least five elementary school students in a school bus crash in Chattanooga have state lawmakers talking about revisiting a seat belt proposal previously tabled because of its price tag.

Rep. Gerald McCormick, a Republican from Chattanooga, said Monday’s deaths of a kindergartener, a first-grader and three fourth-graders bring the need for school bus seat belts into sharper focus, regardless of the costs.

“I know it’s expensive,” McCormick told The Tennessean on Tuesday, noting that education is the state’s biggest budget item. “(But) if we can’t guarantee or do as much as we can to guarantee the safety of these kids as they go to and from school, then the rest of it is pretty useless.”

Gov. Bill Haslam agreed that school transportation needs to be reviewed in Tennessee. “It’s time to have that conversation,” he told reporters in Nashville.

Phasing in seat belts on school buses would cost the state $5.5 million every year for 10 years, as well as $33 million in annual local spending, according to an estimate that accompanied a 2015 bill.

That proposal, sponsored by former Rep. Joe Armstrong of Knoxville, was filed after two students and a teacher’s assistant were killed in a Knox County crash in 2014. The measure would have required all of the state’s school buses to be retrofitted with seat belts by 2023, but the seat belt provision never made it out of a House transportation subcommittee. The legislature later approved a scaled-down version that increased the fine and jail time for texting while driving a school bus with students on board. Authorities said texting was a factor in the Knox County crash.

School bus safety has been a persistent issue in Tennessee. In the last week alone,  two non-fatal crashes were in the news, including one in which a Chester County bus rolled over en route to a Beta Club convention in Nashville, sending 23 students to the hospital.

Within days, the fatal Chattanooga crash had state and local authorities rethinking bus safety measures.

The accident occurred Monday afternoon as the bus carried 35 students home from Woodmore Elementary School. The vehicle struck a house and wrapped around a tree. Its 24-year-old driver has been charged with vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving as authorities sought to pinpoint the cause.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which oversees school bus safety, only recently changed its stance on seat belts. For decades, the federal agency’s leaders were adamant that seat belts were unnecessary on school buses and in fact could heighten danger for students by making it harder to evacuate crash sites. But last year, administrators changed the agency’s stance, though stopping short of requiring seat belts.

Standing alone

New report blasts Colorado for allowing tiny districts to net more school funding by breaking away from larger districts

A new national report on school districts that break away from larger districts criticizes Colorado for incentivizing that path in rural Yuma County.

While the report from the nonprofit EdBuild spotlights a number of districts nationwide that have seceded from larger urban districts to avoid racial and socioeconomic integration, the motivation in Yuma was getting more school funding for tiny rural communities.

In 2001, two school districts on the Eastern Plains — East Yuma and West Yuma — split into four smaller districts: Yuma, Wray and the much smaller Idalia and Liberty. Voters approved the splits in 2000. The idea was to secure more state funding by taking advantage of a new law, pushed through by the local state representative, that would give extra dollars to small districts created by boundary changes approved in that year’s election. (Normally, small districts created by such splits aren’t entitled to more state money.)

PHOTO: EdBuild

The plan worked, netting big per-pupil increases for Idalia, which has about 225 students, and Liberty, which has about 80. In the 2016-17 school year, Yuma and Wray received around $5,500 in state funding for each student while Idalia received about $10,000 and Liberty received about $9,100, according to the Colorado Department of Education.

An East Yuma school board member said before the split, “It would have been nice if [the state] could have provided funding without splitting us, but there was no other way.”

The 2000 Westword story that quoted the board member also described how at first the legislation allowing an exception for districts like those in Yuma County seemed destined to fail. Some lawmakers instead proposed that the Idalia and Liberty schools be closed. But testimony from a fifth-grade girl who’d have a longer bus ride if her Idalia school closed helped put the proposal back on track.

For the small communities that felt shortchanged when they were part of larger districts, the new law provided a major financial boost. But the authors of the EdBuild report argue that it was misguided state policy.

They say the Yuma splits created new duplicative bureaucracies and waste state taxpayers’ money.

By “rewarding small size, Colorado is incentivizing poor financial management, throwing good money after bad and dividing communities along the way,” write the authors.

The report, released Wednesday, is called, “Fractured: The Breakdown of America’s School Districts.

Detroit Journalism Cooperative

Restrictions on teacher pay in Detroit schools can scare away applicants — and make it hard to fill 260 classroom positions

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Kindergarten teacher Stefanie Kovaleski of Bethune Elementary-Middle School is one of many teachers who could take a major pay cut when her school returns next year to Detroit Public Schools Community District if she doesn't get credit for her years of experience.

This story is published in partnership with Bridge Magazine, part of the Detroit Journalism Cooperative.  

In Detroit, as many as 260 classroom teacher positions are unfilled in the state’s largest district, prompting a shortage so severe that substitutes last year were the full-time solution in more than 100 classrooms.

And with fewer new teachers are graduating from college every year, pressure is mounting to find qualified teachers. The situation has left teachers working harder in overcrowded classrooms for underwhelming pay –  they’ve seen their pay frozen and cut repeatedly in a district that’s beset with problems both financial and academic.

Yet in the face of a supply and demand problem, the Detroit teachers, like their peers in numerous Michigan school districts, have bargained for contracts that severely restrict the pay of the folks who could help alleviate the shortage.

In Detroit, Dearborn and Roseville, new teachers can only get credit for two years’ experience they accrued working in other school districts. In Grand Rapids it’s five years, in Lansing it’s eight.

It’s difficult to gauge whether the restrictions affect teacher recruitment because they may scare away potential applicants. But for those who are considering a move, the impact is huge.

Say you’re a teacher with 10 years’ experience at Utica schools, which had layoffs last year. To work in Detroit, you’d have to accept nearly $36,000 less, going from more than $78,500 to just under $43,000 because eight years’ of experience wouldn’t count.

Detroit already pays less, with teachers topping out at $65,265 after 10 years, compared with well over $78,000 in most districts. But the restriction put in place by the teachers –  and agreed upon by the administration –  makes that cut even more steep.

Union rules

In a number of Michigan school districts, teachers have negotiated to limit the pay of new hires, ensuring they cannot get full credit for prior teaching experience. In other districts, those decisions are left to the administration. In most cases “max pay” refers to salaries of teachers with master’s degree plus 30 additional hours of graduate education who have the maximum number of years of experience. Below are the 25 largest districts in the state. The restrictions were more common among the 21 districts that surround Detroit, with more than half calling for limits on credit for teaching experience.

District Maximum years of credit Years to top of scale Max pay
Detroit 2* 10 $65,965
Utica full 11 $89,563
Dearborn 2* 18 $82,006
Plymouth-Canton 5* 14 $81,049
Ann Arbor full 11 $80,769
Chippewa Valley full 12 $89,443
Grand Rapids 5* 12 $68,042
Rochester full 20 $86,420
Warren Consolidated full 12 $94,700
Walled Lake full 15 $90,362
Livonia 7 12 $84,595
Troy full 14 $92,400
Kalamazoo full 25 $76,881
Wayne-Westland 3* 14 $76,839
Lansing 8 22 $76,850
L’Anse Creuse full 16 $84,386
Farmington 4* 11 $86,830
Forest Hills full 28 $84,590
Traverse City full 20 $74,819
Waterford 8 15 $78,351
Huron Valley 5* 17 $75,915
Port Huron full 13 $69,831
Kentwood full 26 $80,403
Portage full 30 $88,808
Grand Blanc full 12 $73,588

*In some cases, the union contracts allow districts to acknowledge additional years of experience.

Source: Collective bargaining agreements

There’s little wiggle room because the collectively bargained contracts set salaries exclusively by experience and education. Critics say the restrictions put teachers’ interests ahead of students.

“School districts that want to attract the best teachers… for their students would not want these kinds of policies,” said Ben DeGrow, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center, a free-market think tank based in Midland. It has been frequent critics of teachers’ unions.

Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, said the language has been in the contract for years and acknowledges those teachers who’ve suffered through years of pay cuts and freezes.

“You have teachers who stayed here and endured it all,” she said. “They care about the children and they’ve stuck it out.”

Bailey said the contract allows the district more latitude when trying to hire teachers in critical areas such as special education. Those specialty areas can salary credit for up to eight years’ experience.

But if it’s not in a critical area, no dice. And that’s been a problem for principals wanting to fill vacancies such as Jeffrey Robinson, principal at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit’s west side.

“On three separate occasions, we got people who got past the onboarding process, right to the point where they were ready to sign the contract. Then they took a better offer because the salaries are just not competitive,” Robinson told Detroit Journalism Cooperative reporting partner Chalkbeat Detroit recently.

Despite the obstacles in pay and a push by officials some to consider uncertified teachers, district spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said the district “is committed to hiring certified teachers.”

Detroit is not the only district with restrictions. They are found in union contracts at districts large and small, wealthy and poor, urban and suburban and are the result of the anger stemming from pay cuts and freezes that have taken a huge chunk out of the earning power of teachers who have worked for years in troubled districts.

Not found everywhere

Bailey said it’s common for teachers who change districts to get less than full credit for their experience.

“We can’t do it when we go to another district, either,” she said. “Nobody’s going to give you all of your time.”

But a survey of teacher contracts from more than 40 districts around the state show that many allow district administrators to grant full credit.

In  Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, Ferndale, Warren Fitzgerald, Warren Van Dyke, South Redford, Utica and others, a teacher could jump to the top of the scale without the teachers union contract prohibiting it.

In the Grosse Pointe schools, which pays among the best in the state, new teachers can be hired at the 13th of a 14-step salary schedule.

Yet in other places, teachers have put the brakes on salaries. Those that have are communities suburban and urban, wealthy and poor. In Oak Park, just north of Detroit, the teachers’ contract has a provision that says all new hires should be hired at beginners’ wages.

Hiring at higher levels “puts financial pressure on the district and creates an environment which disenfranchises staff currently restricted by contractual step freezes,” according to the contract.

The Walled Lake schools in Oakland County, the 10th largest district in the state, had restrictions in prior contracts. But the union agreed to take them out a few years ago even though they continue to encourage the district to hire teachers at as low a step as possible.

Still, the union recognized the need to give the district more flexibility.

“It makes it really hard to have one blanket policy for every opening,” said Daryl Szmanski, president of the teachers’ union in Walled Lake. “As a teacher shortage looms, it’s going to be harder and harder to get good candidates.”

To be sure, restrictions on teacher pay for outsiders is hardly the only factor in teacher shortages in parts of the state. It’s difficult to say if it’s even a major factor. Stagnant state funding for education, a steep drop in enrollment in teacher preparation programs, and sometimes harsh public and political rhetoric directed toward public education almost certainly also play a role in the shortage. So too, there are far fewer substitute teachers available to fill in when permanent teachers are absent.

But for unions, the teacher shortage presents two bad choices: Be unhappy about crowded classrooms or be unhappy that new teachers make more money.

For the Mackinac Center’s DeGrow, the decision should be easy: Door No. 2.

“This kind of policy is just an obstacle for getting the best talent in the classroom,” DeGrow said. “The kids (in Detroit) are already as a disadvantage. Why would we want to make it harder to bring qualified teachers in?”

Need ‘best teachers’

Brad Banasik, director of labor relations for the Michigan Association of School Boards, said he’s not heard complaints about the contracts, but noted that he thinks “administrators would like the ability to hire some on the higher step (pay level).”

Some unions agree. Doug Hill is a veteran teacher who’s now president of the Rochester teachers’ union in Oakland County and he said he’s aware of the painful cuts at other districts.

Hill’s union decided in a recent negotiation to remove a restriction on pay for counselors who held teaching certificates. The district had seen positions go unfilled but now can hire teachers in at whatever level experience they want.

“I can see both sides of this,” Hill said, but added “we’re trying to get the best teachers to put in front of students.”

Union officials say they asked for –  and got –  the restrictions because they say without it their veteran teachers would be demoralized by having new hires, who had not endured the same pay cuts and freezes, make more money doing the same work.

It would be hard to determine how often these provisions have hurt districts like Detroit and Dearborn. If  teachers know they’d have to take a $20,000 or $30,000 pay cut, would they even apply? And they’d likely know: All Michigan districts are required to post their teacher contracts online; Bridge did its survey using this easily-to-access information.

“I think they’re very aware of what’s out there,” Rochester’s Hill said.

For Detroit and other districts, that may be a problem.

This story originally ran in Bridge Magazine on June 15, 2017.

To focus on community life and the city’s future after bankruptcy, five nonprofit media outlets have formed the Detroit Journalism Cooperative (DJC).

The Center for Michigan’s Bridge Magazine is the convening partner for the group, which includes Detroit Public Television (DPTV), Michigan Radio, WDET, Chalkbeat, and New Michigan Media, a partnership of ethnic and minority newspapers.

Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ford Foundation, the DJC partners are reporting about and creating community engagement opportunities relevant to the city’s bankruptcy, recovery and restructuring.