Friday, January 19, 2018
Education

Pinellas school district printer contract sparks teacher outcry

Second-grade teacher Christine Amstutz never thought she could get tearful about a printer.

But when word came down at a faculty meeting that teachers' personal classroom printers could be confiscated under a new district directive, something in her broke.

"It just felt like one more thing," said the 25-year teaching veteran.

She wasn't alone.

A new $2 million contract approved by the Pinellas County School Board in mid March that will reduce the numbers of printers teachers can use has become a flash point between an administration diligently trying to save money and ranks of teachers already besieged by budget cuts.

"It's one of the last things a teacher had control over and it's so symbolic," Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Kim Black said. She ticked off a laundry list of things teachers feel they no longer have a say in: "Curriculum. Professional development. Material selection. Technology selection. Schedule of the day. Flow of the day."

But hoping to get employees to think before they print, superintendent John Stewart defended the change. Some schools have more printers than staff, he said.

Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg has 122 printers for 120 employees.

"It boils down to an issue of convenience as opposed to efficiency and effectiveness," Stewart told board members recently.

Last year, the district spent $1 million on toner for an untold number of printers throughout the county — a figure that can be reduced by about 20 percent the first year under the new contract with Ricoh Business Solutions, according to district printing services supervisor Brian Chepren.

Starting July 1, teachers will send most print jobs to more centrally located school machines that can print, copy, fax and scan — and where the cost to print is less than a half-cent per page.

But the news that sparked the biggest backlash from teachers: Any printer not removed from classrooms would become district property, even if it was purchased with personal or donated money.

Teachers who continued to use printers in their rooms would rack up charges of 31/2 cents per page for black and white and 20 cents for color — seven to 44 times higher than if they send their jobs down the hall.

"As a teacher, this decision has left me feeling disregarded and unimportant," Amstutz wrote in a letter to School Board members. Amstutz has two printers in her class, both paid for and maintained with donations and teacher incentive pay, which will no longer be a funding option under the new plan.

In an email to board members, Brooker Creek Elementary teacher Patricia Spears noted "in the elementary classroom, there are many occasions in which we need to have a few more copies right away."

Pages rip. Things spill. Copies are short.

"We do not have the luxury to go to the main copier whenever we would like," said Spears, a second-grade teacher. "Morale has been low over the past few years, and this latest micromanagement will make it even lower."

Amid teacher outcry, the district backed off taking over personal or donated printers. But employees who decide to keep them without putting them on the Ricoh network must pay out of pocket to purchase toner and make repairs.

Some teachers remain skeptical that the new contract will save the district any money.

Colleen Parker, a St. Petersburg High School computer teacher, said she has crunched the figures and believes the contract will cost the district almost $500,000 more each year, not including the printing charges racked up at the desktop printers. That's because the monthly rental fees of the Ricoh machines combined with the per-page printer costs works out to be about $41,500 higher per month than it is now.

Parker has sent her analysis to board members, but Chepren takes exception to it, saying it's impossible to compare the new printer contract with the old copier contract since the tools are different. He also questions her estimates of toner used per page.

Cynthia Heinlein, a 41-year teaching veteran and chair of the business department at East Lake High School, also doubts the savings.

In her school, students use 10 printers in four computer labs to print out hard copies of their assignments, including research papers, and other documents, brochures and newsletters they design in pursuit of industry certification in various software. About 130 to 150 students use each lab per day, she said, and printouts are critical to helping them catch errors they might not spot on the computer screen.

"At some point," Heinlein said, "the money isn't going to be there to help them get their certification because it's going to be used to print their assignments."

Chepren has been trying to address teacher concerns since mid March, when the board approved the contract.

He says he's answered every email personally, visited 10 schools, and as recently as Tuesday sent out a four-point document titled "Myth vs. Fact on Managed Document Services contract" that ruffled teachers' feathers.

"Any time there's change," Chepren said, "it's change, and there's an uprising."

But at Lakewood High — one of the three schools that piloted the new plan in December and January — the rollout met with little criticism, said principal Bob Vicari. He sees the change as minor in the larger picture of trying to save dollars, money that could boost teacher pay.

"Obviously, you don't want to lose people, you don't want to lose benefits, you want to at some point get a raise," he said. Maybe this can help.

Amstutz is hopeful it does. While teachers across the district received an average 1.5 percent step raise districtwide last year — the first salary increase since 2007-08 — that didn't mean pay for every teacher went up, due to cuts in supplements and decreases in tax revenues that contribute to teacher pay.

The School Board supported the move to allow some personal printers to remain in classrooms, but board chairwoman Robin Wikle, at least, believes district officials are on the right track.

"We commissioned Dr. Stewart to save money," she said. "That means looking at everything down to refrigerators, anything that costs money."

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or [email protected]

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