STAMFORD – The sun was just rising as teachers gathered Tuesday outside the entrance to Stamford High School, holding hot cups of coffee and signs that read, “Six is not the fix.”
The scene was similar at Westhill High School and the Academy of Information Technology & Engineering, where teachers met to enter their buildings in groups to protest a plan by the superintendent that would increase their daily class load from five to six.
High school teachers also gathered to leave their buildings in groups at dismissal time.
They were not alone, said Stefanie Kousoulas, a world language teacher at Stamford High, where she serves as a representative of the teachers’ union, the Stamford Education Association.
“Elementary and middle schools in Stamford are doing this today, too,” Kousoulas said as she handed out signs. “We are united because we know this will not be good for education.”
School administrators have said they want to equalize instruction time across grade levels. High school teachers now have, on average, 135 minutes of non-instruction time a day, administrators have said. Elementary and middle-school teachers have an average of 85 minutes.
But high school teachers say grade levels are not comparable. They have five classes of up to 30 students each, for as many as 150 students in total, they say. Elementary teachers, by comparison, have 30 students at most.
Donna Kaiser, a chemistry teacher at Stamford High, said having a large number of students requires a large amount of preparation.
“We want to provide the best education we can, but that won’t happen if we don’t have enough time to plan our lessons and support our students,” said Kaiser, also a union representative.
District administrators are not weighing the services teachers provide during non-instruction time, said Suzanne Rixon, a Stamford High math teacher and faculty representative for the union.
Rixon and other high school teachers say they use their free time to provide extra help, enter grades, contact parents, write college recommendations, collaborate with department colleagues, prepare documents for online instruction, cover study halls, plan club activities, confer with their students’ counselors, provide feedback on assignments, and more.
“If teachers don’t come in early and stay late to help students, who will?” Rixon said.
School administrators say they do not need Board of Education approval to make the change, which they are looking to implement in September. They do not intend to pay teachers more for the increased workload.
The plan would set a precedent, so the whole state is watching, Rixon said.
“Everyone is concerned that this will lead to other districts going from five to six classes,” said Rixon as she organized boxes of coffee and doughnuts in front of the high school. “There’s already a teacher shortage — teachers at Stamford High had to pick up 38 classes that were unstaffed.”
The state union backs the Stamford union in challenging the six-class plan, said Nancy Andrews, director of communications for the Connecticut Education Association.
“Teachers are leaving school districts. They are being cherry-picked to go into professions outside teaching. This will add to that,” Andrews said. “It will infringe on the one-on-one time teachers have with students. It will affect the quality of their education.”
Andrews said Connecticut Education Association leaders, including President Kate Dias, joined the morning protest at Westhill. Andrews issued a statement quoting Dias.
“With teacher shortages continuing to plague the state, Stamford wants to pile on additional work for educators who are already stretched thin and considering leaving the profession or going to a nearby district with a reasonable schedule and higher pay,” Dias said.
The Stamford Education Association has the right to bargain over the six-class plan, said the president, John Corcoran. Teachers who take on a sixth class to cover a vacancy now are paid a sum equal to 20 percent of their salary, which sets a benchmark, Corcoran said.
“Our contract language is strong, and it has prior history,” Corcoran said. “I don’t know how you ask teachers to do more work and not pay them. No arbitrator is going to allow that, based on the contract and past practice.”
He hopes to talk things through with Central Office administrators and members of the Board of Education, Corcoran said. A meeting was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, he said.
“It’s our first official, but informal, meeting,” Corcoran said. “If we have to, we will pursue this in formal negotiations and binding arbitration. We hope we won’t have to. We hope that by rallying teachers and standing as one, our voice is heard.”
The union questions the Central Office argument that adding a sixth class is about equalizing free time for all teachers, Corcoran said.
“They use the word equity, but you can’t compare elementary school and middle school and high school. It’s not apples to apples. It’s apples to oranges to pineapple slices. They teach in different worlds,” he said. “As far as I can tell, it’s about dollars. This is about Central Office saying, ‘How do we pay people with $9 million in funds we won’t have on July 1, 2024?’”
It’s a reference to the school district’s “fiscal cliff,” created when the superintendent’s office used nearly $9 million in federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief money to fund 120 positions. The COVID-relief funding runs out on June 30. If the district is to keep the jobs, taxpayers must fund them.
Kathleen Steinberg, spokeswoman for Stamford Public Schools, said the “fiscal cliff” is everyone’s problem.
“Jobs were not just created with ESSER money. Jobs were preserved with ESSER money,” Steinberg said.
She said it’s because the Board of Representatives, in response to the onset of the pandemic, cut most of the spending increase Superintendent Tamu Lucero requested for 2020-21.
“Faced with layoffs, Stamford Public Schools used ESSER money to preserve jobs across the district for the last three years. The ESSER funds expire on June 30, 2024, and the jobs preserved through those funds will need to be moved into the operating budget at a significant budget increase,” Steinberg said. “This makes the ‘fiscal cliff’ not just a Board of Education concern or a Central Office concern, but something that should be concerning every teacher, staff member, student, and parent in our district.”
Steinberg said school administrators are trying to operate the district more efficiently.
“Right now, high school teachers who are teaching five out of eight blocks are spending only 63 percent of available instructional minutes in the classroom. We would like to see that percentage increase to benefit students,” Steinberg said. “It should be noted that under the current contract agreed to by the SEA, the maximum class size for most subjects at the secondary level is 30 students. If we were filling every high school class to capacity, teachers would already have a caseload of 150 students. We believe that smaller class sizes benefit everyone, which is why few, if any, classes are filled to capacity. Based on our analysis, most teachers would still be at or under the 150-student caseload teaching six out of eight blocks.”
Steinberg said the decision to add a sixth class was never “unilateral … and it’s unfortunate that people are portraying it as such.”
District officials understand that teachers have concerns about the sixth-class plan, Steinberg said. Their concerns will be discussed “as part of the bargaining process,” she said, and the district “has tremendous respect for the teachers who go above and beyond for students every day.”
Andrews of the state teachers’ union said opposition to the plan won’t go away.
“It affects the kids, that’s the bottom line,” Andrews said. “If it’s a money issue, they have to find some other way to handle it. This is not it.”