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BRISTOL — About 75 percent of Bristol teachers feel the school district leadership is not moving in the right direction, according to a survey conducted by the teachers’ union.
The survey was conducted Aug. 24, when Superintendent Ellen Solek delivered her “Vision of Success” presentation at Bristol Central High School to all staff at the annual convocation ceremony that precedes the start of the new school year.
David Hayes, president of the Bristol Federation of Teachers (BFT), said the survey was distributed to all teachers and asked a single question: “Do you feel confident that district leadership is moving in the right direction?” There was space for comments.
Results, in which about 40 percent of teachers participated, were released recently. Hayes noted that since some schools did not have union reps, “conducting the survey there was difficult or impossible, but we feel the 40 percent sample is an accurate representation of the membership as a whole.”
The most common comments included in the survey responses were about too many initiatives and programs for the schools, the superintendent denying teachers “the freedom to speak freely,” Wednesday afternoon meetings being “useless,” lack of respect and understanding about what teachers face every day, teachers not having input into the district “visions,” the need to “put kids first,” etc.
“The reason for the survey was the palpable sense of frustration among teachers that the district is off course and no longer the exemplary urban district we once were,” said Hayes, who is a fifth-grade teacher at Edgewood Elementary School.
“This is a data-driven district, and we wanted to provide some data that would hopefully make district leaders take notice and alter course,” he said. “Ultimately though, the problems are about honest communication and free speech.”
Hayes said those making the big decisions for the district have little or no actual classroom experience, often leaving classroom teachers trying to compensate for “inadequate budgets and poorly implemented programs.”
“Teachers just want their voices heard and respected,” he said. “Doing this would allow the district to strengthen the quality of educational programs and achieve ‘buy in’ from teachers.”
Hayes said that the keynote speaker at the 2014 convocation was former Bristol superintendent Michael Wasta.
“He won over the audience of teachers when he said education reform has failed because there is never any ‘buy in’ from teachers, and that real reform would have to come from teachers themselves,” Hayes said.
“It’s ironic that his words were embraced by Bristol teachers but immediately forgotten or ignored by the BOE [Board of Education] who invited him to speak,” he added.
Responding to Hayes’ statement, Chairman Larry Amara said he doubted the survey drew that many responses, “and even if it was 40 percent, that’s not a lot in my view.”
In any case, Amara said, “I’m simply trying to help him by having the staff follow the chain of command.”
“If you were a buck private and you have a complaint you don’t go to a five star general,” he continued. “There is a mechanism in the school system, as in every school system — if you have an issue you go to your immediate supervisor.”
“You just can’t come to a board meeting and start complaining that you need more this, you need more that, without going through the process,” Amara added.
Hayes said the relationship between the board and the BFT, “already strained from negotiations in the fall of 2014,” reached its lowest ebb last June, after two special education teachers who spoke at a board meeting were called to the central office a few days later.
“It was an openly contentious meeting between the administration, who claimed to feel ambushed, and BFT reps, who felt the teachers where being intimidated for exercising their right to free speech,” he said.
Hayes said that he and Solek have since begun meeting on a monthly basis in an attempt to create an open dialogue.
Solek was not available for comment.