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Worn-out middle school teachers decry longer school day

A controversial schedule change that lengthened the middle school day this year is wearing out teachers and hurting students, a group of teachers told the Pinellas School Board Tuesday night.

"We are exhausted; the power burst required to do a good job is excruciating," said Lara Charmatz, one of about 30 teachers who said their comments reflected the atmosphere in all of the district's middle schools.

"Come on, guys," Charmatz implored, her voice cracking. "This is not working."

The board approved the schedule change in June, adding 14 minutes to the middle school day and increasing the number of periods from six to seven.

District officials initially proposed the change as a way to better engage students by allowing more time in the schedule for them to take electives that might pique their interest in school. It also made room in the schedule to comply with state mandates, including remedial courses for struggling students and a new law requiring daily PE class.

But it also turned out to be a money-saving move that allowed the district to meet state-mandated class size without spending more money. The district saved about $2.2-million, part of a $27-million budget cut that also eliminated raises for all district employees.

The change broke the district's contract with teachers by violating a provision that requires they teach no more than five periods. It also reduced class time at most schools, from 53 or 54 minutes per period last year to 48 minutes this year. The result: Teachers are working longer hours and grading more students for the same pay as last year.

District officials have acknowledged the contract violation but have responded that budget cuts passed down by the state left them little choice.

Osceola Middle School teacher Sara Jensen told the board she surveyed her 134 students about the schedule change. Six said they liked it "because then they could get through classes they didn't like faster," she said. The rest said there was too much homework or not enough time in class to get through topics.

Jensen said the shortened class time works out to 20 fewer hours of teaching time over the course of the year.

"What would you like me to leave out of U.S. history?" she asked board members. "There is nothing to leave out."

Superintendent Julie Janssen did not address the teachers' comments, saying the issue will be discussed as the district negotiates a new three-year contract with the teachers union.

Board member Mary Brown said the district would give teachers a raise as soon as it had more money. But she noted forecasts call for budget cuts next year of $36-million to $49-million.

Two board members said they erred in voting for the change.

"I should have said, 'Where can we find (money in the budget). Tell me what the choices are,' " board member Linda Lerner said.

"I apologize for my vote on this," board member Janet Clark, a former middle school teacher, said. "I don't know that we were fully informed of the impact it would have on schools."

Worn-out middle school teachers decry longer school day 10/28/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 3, 2008 3:42pm]
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