Crossing BRIDGES2 - Board approves program and teachers" pay

By Mary L. Grady

Two key votes last Thursday by the School Board epitomized the differences in philosophy regarding the direction of the Mercer Island School District: Who makes the decisions regarding content of the school day and how important is non-academic time is to the education of students?

But despite the emotions on each side, the discussion between board members and the community, remained civil.

The board approved teachers' pay increases and to expand the high school advisory program, BRIDGES2, from meeting once a week this year to twice a week next year.

After a great deal of time debating the best way to improve relationships at the high school, the Mercer Island School Board approved the expansion of the BRIDGES2 program and the school improvement plan in a vote of three yes votes. Board member John Fry voted against expanding the program.

The board also approved the 2005-06 contract for teachers. The vote was three votes to approve the contract, with Fry abstaining. Board member Lisa Strauch Eggers was unable to attend the meeting and did not vote.

Fry, who is apparently not running for reelection to his post this fall, took the opportunity to speak to his philosophy about how resources are distributed in the district and how the exploration of advanced or honors classes has languished over the past few years.

The expanded BRIDGES program will have students meeting in their 20-member, cross-class advisory groups twice each week, including a 56-minute BRIDGES session held each Friday. Some of the time each week will be used for announcements, state mandated teaching on AIDS and bullying, and other administrative tasks that now are done during class time.

Several individuals spoke against the expanded program. The arguments centered around the loss of instructional time and how the program was designed. Some said there was not enough community input on the program. But advocates of the program pointed to the success of the pilot based on student surveys and impassioned testimony by students and administrators such as interim principal Kathy Siddoway.

The expanded BRIDGES proposal was revised somewhat and now includes a way for students to opt completely out and attend a study hall; a procedure that will allow students to change groups; and provisions for more teachers and student leader training for counseling-type roles.

The new proposal also includes a commitment to an extensive study to begin next year on the adequacy of Advanced Placement and honors classes at the high school.

Fry said he was uncertain that the expanded program is the correct one for Mercer Island or is worth the time spent away from instructional time based on research of other schools' practices and the surveys of Island parents and students.

``The research points to an advisory program,'' he said. ``But many of the schools (that were studied) are not like ours. When you look at high performance schools, they offer richer academic programs. I find it a bit of a stretch to find that those schools are a success because of advisory.''

Along with some parents who have spoken against the program, Fry is not certain the individuals working on the project were objective.

``It is not that I am in any way opposed to creating connections,'' Fry said. ``I fundamentally embrace that. I don't believe that this program is the right way to do it. I encourage the board to send this back to the drawing board, and survey students, parents and teachers objectively.''

Board member Carrie George, who voted yes on the program and teacher pay, reflected that the time given to the BRIDGES2 question has diverted time away from other issues brought up by the community about education.

``Questions about other programs have been left unnoticed -- AP and honors,'' she said. ``We have not done as good a job with those as with the comprehensive look at the advisory program.''

Comments from community member Marty Gale echoed this concern: ``We are not spending enough time talking about academic requirements. Why is not as much time spent on graduation requirements rather than BRIDGES?''

Others are certain of their support.

``This is an opportunity for our staff to create lasting connections with our kids,'' said Board member Leslie Ferrell. ``I entirely support this program.''

Graduate Rachael Graber responded to criticism that there is not enough time devoted to academics. ``The goal of the school should be to produce well-rounded people, not just good students.''

The Board also approved the new Mercer Island Education Association (MIEA) contract for the coming school term. The contract calls for a pay increase for MIEA members of three percent. What was planned to merely be a rubber-stamp approval of the contract already negotiated and approved by the union became a long discussion about the philosophy of salary increases applied across the board.

Board member Fry abstained from the vote, saying he is opposed to giving each teacher the same pay increase without regard to how well that individual has performed.

Superintendent Cyndy Simms noted that setting up a pay for performance program with teachers is a lengthy and complex task, and needs to be dealt with in another context.

Others at the meeting were offended that teachers would not be compensated for what is primarily seen as a cost of living adjustment and that the agreement with the teachers' union may not be honored.

``We bargain in good faith with the association, who has ratified this agreement,'' said Michael Ziara, associate superintendent for business services. ``The agreement is well within the parameters that the board set and I think that you are all obligated to honor those parameters and ratify it -- anything outside of that I think is deplorable.''

Fry is opposed to the notion that pay increases are automatic and not based on merit. He also stated that any additional funding that might be available for salaries should be evaluated for its best use, rather than just simply being applied to pay.''

(Instead) let's look at ways that we can make teachers more effective,'' Fry continued. ``I don't think it makes sense just to pass this money on. I would love to give it to the real contributors in this district.

``Putting tools into place and training people is really the best way of reaching kids and improving the district,'' Fry said. ``I feel that I have no choice here but to register this vote and I hope it will elevate the conversation so that it will receive the community thinking about how it spends its resources.''

Board member Leslie Ferrell reminded Fry that compared to the benchmark schools the district has studied, Mercer Island spends less per student and pays lower teacher salaries -- because of levy and state funding restraints.

George pointed out that there is already a way for each principal to decide whether an employee will get the full increase.

Besides Ziara, John Cameron, associate superintendent for instructional services, bristled at the notion that the pay adjustment for teachers was either not justified or unwarranted.

``By voting no, you are disrespecting the profession of educators, John,'' Cameron said to Fry. ``Our teachers have every tool they need; they already have more tools than they can possibly use. We have given them every professional growth opportunity possible. They don't need more professional growth. To me, this is a disrespect of our teachers and teaching profession.''

Other board members cautioned Fry about the possible ramifications of a negative vote against the MIEA contract, saying it could hurt the relationship between the board and the staff further and make it appear that the board does not support teachers.

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