Paul Stark, IEA General CounselPaul Stark, IEA General Counsel

On April 30, 2012, IEA General Counsel Paul Stark spoke before an audience of several hundred administrators and board members from every part of the state of Idaho.  Below are excerpts from his comments:

I believe that it is time to come to a rational, common sense approach to the relationship between educational professionals and administration.  Years and years of bad blood and mistrust can stop, although I fully understand it will not be overnight. Nor will it be possible if only one party is willing to work on it. There are still a lot of good relationships that must continue.  Today I would like to start a new conversation with you.  I would like to talk to you, face-to-face, about what really matters, what doesn’t really matter, and how together we can move forward.

Less than a year ago I was in private practice running a small law firm in Meridian, and I would occasionally take on a divorce case.  One very common characteristic was that the relationship between the husband and wife almost always got very nasty.  Often I would be approached to “just do the paperwork” and was told that the couple had already worked everything out.  The amicable relationship, however, seemed to always deteriorate, the trust would evaporate, and pretty soon they would do anything in their power to harm the other spouse.  Generally, the battle of attrition would continue on and on, all the while the attorneys were getting their bills paid.  Most of the time, this war would collapse when both spouses ran out of money.

The only victors in this war were the lawyers.  The victims, on the other hand, were the children.  I would tell my client that despite what happens in the divorce, you still have to live and work with each other because you will always share the children.  Each spouse proclaimed that the reason they were fighting so hard was because they loved their children.  But the saddest was when the children were used as messengers, or worst yet, weapons.  Their justification for the war, the children, ultimately became the long-term casualties.

Now I don’t mean to insinuate that this is true of all teacher/administrator relationships. There are many strong, collaborative relationships that exist between teachers and administrators in almost every school district. But I have come to the IEA and inherited, in some circumstances, what looks to me like a long, drawn out divorce.  Where administration and teachers were perhaps once the happy couple, jointly and selflessly looking out of the good of their “children,” somewhere along the way someone filed for divorce.  Somewhere, someone took a cheap shot at the other.  Somewhere, someone began to forget why they are here; why they started this marriage in the first place; forgot that they both love the children.
Today is a new day.  I approach the practice of law with the presumption that most everyone is at their core reasonable and good intentioned.  Getting to that core is sometimes a challenge.  There have been many years of building up walls of distrust on both sides.  But what I particularly seek as General Counsel is for both my clients and administrators to be reasonable, even-handed and treat each other respectfully.  That is what I am asking my clients to do, and it is what I am asking you to do today.  We need to get past the distrust and think of our students.  I don’t doubt you love the students, and I hope you can acknowledge that teachers and ESP’s love their students.  We must admit that when we fight each other, it is ultimately the students who are the losers.

From the IEA’s perspective, you can’t think about the welfare of the students without thinking about the welfare of the teachers and ESP’s.  Just like in the divorce scenario, a child will suffer if the custodial parent is suffering.  The custodial parent needs to not be constantly worrying about putting food on the table, paying the rent, or being degraded as unimportant and expendable. There are some who may think that students can be taught by robots and computers, but I hope that all here understand that the best teaching comes from human interaction.

The recent changes in the law were taken by the teaching community as a message that teachers are a widget or a commodity, both expendable and easily replaceable.  This in part comes from several statutory changes:

  1. The lack of any job security by not having an expectation of a continuing contract (33-515).
  2. The silencing of teachers voices in bargaining.  There are multiple other issues that also affect both teachers and students, and which teachers want to discuss, that don’t fall into salary or benefits.  (33-1272).
  3. The absence of parents and educators in the conversation over changes in the law, among other.  It is surprising that the IEA, the one organization that represents a majority of the teachers in Idaho, was not invited to the table when these bills were drafted.

As a parent, I was astounded that no one asked for my opinion.  Can you ever imagine legislative changes in agriculture, insurance or any other industry where the players were excluded from the discussions?

Agree or disagree with these legislative changes, we must all acknowledge that they are very harsh on teachers.  In addition, wages have not kept up with inflation and funding continues to be reduced.  Hence, the drastic rise in school levies being voted on all over the state.

In a most basic of free market analysis, Idaho competes with its sister states.  No one can disagree that we want exceptionally great teachers, ESP’s and administrators in Idaho.  With the recent changes in the law, Idaho is now offering lower wages than its sister states, less voice in their working conditions, and little job security.  The affects of this have played out.  The number of Idaho teachers who left the profession has gone from 716 in 2009-2010 to 1276 in 2010-2011.

As you are all aware, there are three referenda on the ballot for November that would overturn these punishing laws.  The IEA hopes that after the passage of the referenda, all parties that have an interest in education can come together to collaboratively find reforms that (1) create a magnet for educators to come to Idaho and remain in the teaching field for their entire careers, (2) allow teachers to feel valued and involved in the process, (3) assure other education stakeholders (parents, community leaders, business owners, and others) can be involved in the reform, and (4) provide a better 21st century education.

The IEA and the school districts MUST work together if we hope to assure every Idaho child has access to a great public school. Undoubtedly we can, if we choose, continue to fight.  But who has what weapon and how can it be used against the other guys is not the right question.

The question we should be asking is: what is best for students?  And the answer to that question is, in part, fostering a more trusting and respectful relationship between teachers/ESP’s and school administrators/boards.  This will be done by baby steps, but it might as well start today.

I hope that the referenda are voted down. Not so I can say “We won and you lost!” But to say, “OK, let’s reset the clock.  Let’s reform this the right way.”

Regardless of the outcome of the referenda or any given situation, there are still going to be conflicts.  We won’t agree on everything and that’s OK.  But I can promise you that I will approach each situation where I am involved with civility, respect and the presumption that everyone (including the IEA) will be reasonable and evenhanded.  This is my olive branch.  I am offering it hoping that we can begin a new conversation, starting today.