Montgomery County Public Schools. (Courtesy Photo)

ROCKVILLE – A union representing Montgomery county public school teachers, counselors and other school professionals shared concerns with staff and the school board about the system, such as inadequate staffing, lack of respect and low pay.

Some of the work environments, they said, are not ideal for teaching or do not meet the needs of students, such as extra-large class sizes – in particular, at schools with medium to high levels of students who live in poverty.

Too little pay is an issue that keeps many teachers from being able to afford to live in the county.

Chad Wilson, who teaches at Gaithersburg High School, is one of the county teachers who cannot afford to live here. He drives a one hour and 15 minutes one way, and that is without traffic delays on Interstate 270.

Wilson said the salary he receives as a teacher with 13 years of experience and a master’s degree is not enough to live on, not to mention when school is not in session between June and September.

The Gaithersburg teacher worked four jobs this summer, “just to put money in my pockets so my son, my wife, my daughter and I wouldn’t be removed from our house, so I could make my mortgage, so I can pay my electric bill,” Wilson said.

A few months ago, Wilson decided to apply to work for Amazon. He was in the middle of completing his application, and then he thought for a moment.

“‘I’m working four jobs just to be broke?’” he recalled. “‘Why am I going to all these extra jobs, when I’m not seeing my 5-year-old son?’”

The hours of two or more jobs makes it difficult to also invest time in trainings or forming personal connections with his students. “When we talk about, ‘I want to get involved in my students’ lives,’ I can’t- I’m working,” Wilson said during the discussion on Oct. 10.

He and another member of the union recently visited three schools. They gathered all the educators into one room during pre-service and asked how many had considered leaving education during the summer. Wilson estimated that a majority, about 80%, of each of the three school’s educators raised their hands.

One million people left public education jobs in 2018, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing data from the Department of Labor. Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) Superintendent Jack Smith has said several times during the last few months that MCPS is affected by the difficulty of keeping teaching positions filled. The Oct. 10 meeting was held to address the turnover issue.

Part of the purpose of the meeting between the board, staff and Montgomery County Education Assocation (MCEA) was also to discuss the priorities of the union in terms of state education spending recommended by the Kirwan Commission, a group of legislators and others in leadership roles who discuss the needs of the public school systems in the state. The union presented everyone at the rectangle-shaped formation of tables facing each other with a four-page booklet entitled, “It’s about time! A blueprint for making great public schools for all Montgomery County students.” The booklet included a list of 13 priorities of the union for how it would use the money recommended by the Kirwan Commission.

Everyone from the union at the table took turns giving their thoughts on what is important at a “great school” and sharing ideas for helping teachers feel better supported so they are less likely to leave their jobs.

Lauren Moskowitz, secretary for MCEA, said many teachers cannot afford to leave in the county.

“If we’re truly talking about community schools, then we need to be able to live in the communities in which we teach, if we choose to do so,” she said.

While some geographical areas, such as Silver Spring, often have housing that is affordable on a teacher’s salary, that is not true for all school clusters. Many MCPS teachers deal with the challenge of the latter.

“If I move and begin to teach at Potomac Elementary School, I can’t afford to live there,” Moskowitz said. “And I’m not saying every teacher should be able to afford a $1 million-dollar mansion, but they should be able to afford – if they choose – to live within Montgomery County.”

In addition to a competitive salary, teachers also need to have adequate staffing in their schools, Moskowitz said.

Moskowitz works as a special education and English as a Second Language (ESOL) teacher in a MCPS school for children with special needs, which carries specific staffing requirements, such as small class sizes. Some classes have teaching assistants called paraeducators, or paras, who help in classrooms. Schools specifically for children with special needs require more teaching assistants and other staff than “normal” schools.

“Paras should not be tied to the number of teachers in that building, but to the number of students and their needs in that building,” said Moskowitz. “Just because you get 10 more kids at a normal school doesn’t mean you get any more paras, which is what happens. That’s almost two (special-ed) classes and no additional paras, and that’s not safe for anybody.”

Valerie Coll, the elementary school director of the Montgomery County Education Association, said teachers’ jobs are often stressful, and their needs include more than the right number of staff. She emphasized that teachers must believe that their administrations respect them and appreciate their training to be able to make decisions within teaching.

“If you’re not feeling respected as a professional, then all the stress that comes with any child that you have when you’re trying to do your best – particularly when what is in your care is so important – becomes almost overwhelming,” said Coll during the meeting. “So, as we continue to discuss this (MCEA’s priorities) further, think that’s one of the things that we need to take a look at.”

The challenges the teachers mentioned were not unnoticed by board of education members and the superintendent.

Student Member of the Board Nate Tinbite, who attends John F. Kennedy High School, said he has observed the negative impact of large class sizes on his school campus, which has a considerable number of students who receive free and reduced-price meals (FARMs). Once classes get to a certain size, students are prone to sidetrack each other, making it more difficult to learn.

Smith said he agreed that developing professionalism, which can include training, is an area of need, but it is not something that the school system can fix overnight.

“Work around the professionalism of teaching is critical and that needs to start, but I don’t think that’s something we should rush, because what we don’t want is unintended outcomes,” Smith said.

Smith and School Board Vice President Patricia O’Neill said they both supported the need for providing pre-kindergarten for students who need it, particularly students in low-income families.

Smith said he believes the state and the county should contribute at a higher rate for pre-k than they have so far. Five thousand MCPS children are enrolled in pre-k in the county, “which is considerably more over three years, but at that rate it’s going to take seven or eight more years to get to the cohort of kids who are just 4 (and) not including the 3-year-olds that we need to reach,” he said. “And that’s too long.”

MCEA President Chris Lloyd said that to meet the needs of all students, more must be done than “rearranging deck chairs.” Yes, the union can find “efficiencies,” but MCEA needs the support of the school board, the public and county elected officials.

“All of this takes resources,” Lloyd said. The county has $197 billion of property, yet it has the 19th lowest tax rate in the state. If the county followed even the average property tax in the state, it would provide an additional $330 million, Lloyd said.

Lloyd said MCEA, the board and the school system must advocate locally and at the state level to receive the amount of money necessary to fund the school system.

“I believe we are at a critical breaking point (in terms of funding),” Lloyd said.

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