Teachers union: No confidence in Superintendent Lukon
In a letter depicting Dr. Marcia Lukon as a “detached leader, far removed from students and faculty,” Cynthia Cherney, co-president of the Jamestown Teachers Association, said the union objects to Lukon’s decision to fast track implementation of the state’s teacher evaluation program. The union has taken a “no-confidence vote” in the superintendent.
Lukon, who attended the school board meeting Jan. 17 and heard the letter read, did not immediately respond to the call for her to step down. In an e-mail message Tuesday, she said she was disappointed with the union’s action but understood the teachers’ frustration about the evaluations imposed by the state Department of Education. She said she would work with the educators to resolve the differences and improve communications.
“That the teachers union chose to express its concerns in the manner and form that they did is very disappointing to me,” she wrote. “However, I am taking their expression of frustration very seriously.”
She went on to add, “I truly understand the teachers’ frustration with the number and pace of the changes that we are being required to make. The administrators and I share that frustration. The pace is much faster than is comfortable for not only the teachers, but for administrators as well. However, that pace is being dictated by RIDE, not by me.”
Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser asked School Committee mem- bers to defer comments about the no-confidence vote until they had an opportunity to review all the information.
Cherney delivered the union complaint at the start of last week’s meeting. She asked to be recognized during the public forum and read the two-page letter signed by the Jamestown Teachers Association, which is the local union.
About a dozen teachers sat in the audience while Cherney read the letter. Much of the complaint focused on increased workload and other changes linked to the teacher-evaluation initiatives.
“The Jamestown Teachers Association has attempted to build a positive professional relationship with Dr. Lukon for more than 15 months,” the letter went on. “Dr. Lukon’s unwillingness to work with Jamestown teachers and her insistence to pursue initiatives contrary to teacher input has caused the Jamestown Teachers Association to act unanimously in voicing teachers’ dire concerns.”
The letter then lists several allegations about Lukon, stating, for instance, that she:
• is vindictive toward those who voice concerns;
• is unapproachable and has created an environment where the staff operates in fear of repercussions;
• encourages district-wide testing practices that are misleading, are overwhelming for students and monopolizing instructional time;
• utilizes deceiving budget practices;
• showed a lack of respect for the teachers’ contracts through her absence during negotiations.
Lukon said she would not comment on those accusations until the School Committee has received both her written response and the clarifications from the union.
Kaiser also asked Cherney to provide additional information in writing to explain those complaints against the superintendent.
“I’d like some specifics,” she said.
The school board members agreed to e-mail their questions and comments about the union letter to Kaiser. Later, she compiled the comments in a document called “Request for Clarifications,” which went to the teachers union over the weekend.
The teachers stayed through the rest of the meeting, understanding there would be no further discussion about the no-confidence vote because the item was not on the agenda, as Kaiser announced.
Over the weekend, Kaiser gave the Jamestown Press a copy of the school committee’s request for clarifications.
“It is important to note the requests are very specific because it is crucial for the committee to fully understand the basis of the union’s concerns and allegations,” Kaiser wrote in an e-mail message.
Kaiser also asked Lukon to respond in writing to the teachers union complaint.
In an e-mail message after the meeting, Kaiser said there was no set procedure to ask for a response from the superintendent or for additional information from the union in writing. But given the circumstances, she deemed it advisable to “minimize the chance of miscommunication or misinterpretation.”
“Clearly the end goal is to work toward resolving issues and building bridges,” Kaiser said. “The first step is for the committee to fully understand the issues. The union’s letter made some serious allegations but offered no supporting details. It’s important to give JTA the opportunity to substantiate their charges by responding to the School Committee’s request for clarifications and specifics. It’s equally important to give the superintendent the opportunity to respond to all allegations.”
Kaiser said the school board will address the union issue at an upcoming meeting.
Asked if disputes between Lukon and the teachers union have been ongoing, Kaiser said she did know the union opposed participating in the teacher evaluation pilot.
Kaiser said the committee received and responded to a Dec. 9, 2011 letter from the union outlining its concerns. (The date was mistakenly identified in this week’s union letter as Nov. 9, 2011.) Kaiser provided copies of both letters. The teachers complained they were overloaded with work and could not learn the new technology and instructional methods all at once.
In her reply, Kaiser apologized for any confusion and noted the School Committee had purchased a number of new resources to take advantage of available stimulus money. The teachers did not need to master all of them immediately, she said, and the school administration was creating a list to identify which resources were optional and which ones were required.
Lukon said the state’s “reform agenda” has complicated local efforts to improve education.
“Rhode Island is in the midst of reforming education in order to improve the quality and the rigor of the education that we are providing to our students,” she said. “There is a history to our work to improve our schools. In Jamestown we had a very broad-based committee that crafted a five-year strategic plan to improve Jamestown schools back in 2008. This plan had goals and action plans and with these we began the work on a reasonable timeline.”
But the timeline was essentially scuttled when the state took federal Race to the Top grant money, she indicated.
“In 2009, the Rhode Island Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education approved new basic-education program regulations, which reflects 21st century knowledge, skills and disposition,” Lukon said. “These regulations went into effect in 2010 and required school districts to make numerous changes in curriculum, instruction, assessments, administration, management and accountability. The order and pace of the changes were at first left up to the districts. RIDE was then awarded a $75 million Race to the Top grant that put the required reforms on a fast track. All of the changes now have to be implemented by 2014 and RIDE has given districts a timeline to follow in accomplishing the reform agenda.”
Kaiser also said the School Committee supported Lukon’s decision to become one of two districts to pilot the teacher-evaluation model because the state education department had offered to provide extra support and assistance for the teachers and staff.
“Having the assistance of the [individual service provider] was one of the key benefits of – and a key factor in – the decision to volunteer as a full-implementation district,” Kaiser wrote.
If Jamestown had waited a year, the teachers and staff would have been on their own.
The union complained the education department had done little to help, however, and sent the school board a letter dated December 2011. At the time, Kaiser responded and said the state had come up with a schedule to show when the service provider would be available, and the School Committee was satisfied that the state’s efforts would ultimately prove helpful.
Lukon said she disagreed with the teachers’ assessment of the individual service provider. “Because we agreed to be full implementers of the Rhode Island teacher evaluation plan, we were provided 60 full days of assistance, in any form we wanted, from a trained ISP,” she wrote. “This service provider established a varied schedule of availability to assist teachers and administrators with implementing the evaluation plan. The JTA letter prompted me to ensure that the ISP’s schedule was sent to the teachers on a regular basis with encouragement to send her the time and date that they would like her to assist them with any part of the plan that they would like help.”
Lukon said that the service provider, Kathleen Egan, has been a “tremendous help” to the administrators, who act as the evaluators. This is the second year of implementation.
“The evaluators are learning along with the teachers,” said Lukon. “This year, our ISP is assigned to our district for 40 days. The teachers are regularly informed of when she is available to them. Ms. Egan has also provided professional-development sessions whenever we have had an indication that there may be a misunderstanding among the teachers. RIDE’s help has far exceeded that described in the JTA letter.”
Despite the challenges, Lukon said, Jamestown schools “are making excellent progress, thanks to the hard work and dedication of Jamestown’s teachers and administrators.”
The local union is not alone in its opposition to the way the state is implementing teacher evaluations. Both state teacher unions – the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals and the National Education Association Rhode Island – have taken a stand against the new teacher evaluations. The unions have complained that the model is being implemented too quickly and may not be consistent from district to district.
Karen Jenkins, spokeswoman for the NEARI, said in a telephone interview the union is encouraging members to sign a petition against the teacher-evaluation model.
Over the past few months, the North Smithfield and Woonsocket teachers, along with the North Kingstown support staff, have also taken no-confidence votes in their superintendents.
Tim Ryan, spokesman for the Rhode Island School Superintendents Association, was contacted and asked to comment by telephone. He said the teacherevaluation issue has added stress to the relationship between the teachers and the superintendents, but added all the no-confidence votes developed over local issues. North Smithfield has a long-standing contract dispute, Woonsocket is having money problems, and North Kingstown also has a financial crisis. He is aware of petitions against the teacher-evaluation model but does not know of any protests.
Cherney said the vote and the decision to call for Lukon’s resignation was due primarily to local problems in the Jamestown schools.
Kaiser said the Department of Education has recently responded to the state teachers unions’ concerns and indicated there is some room for compromise on its model. But the state education department has not reacted to similar concerns from school administrators about their hardship in having to complete “arduous evaluatortraining sessions.”
“In order to begin a healthy conversation in Jamestown, it’s important for all parties to clearly delineate what is superintendentimposed versus RIDE-imposed,” Kaiser said.
Asked about whether Lukon’s part-time status might have exacerbated union complaints that she makes no effort to involve herself in school events, Kaiser replied the school board has not considered going back to a full-time leader. She added that she does not doubt Lukon’s part-time hours have contributed to a perception of her “not being fully available.”
“The School Committee made the decision to move from having a full-time superintendent with one principal to having a part-time superintendent and a principal in each school in order to strengthen the direct instructional leadership in our schools,” said Kaiser. “It is our principals who are responsible for being in the classrooms, not our superintendent. This no doubt has been a difficult transition for our teachers, who were used in the old system to having the full-time superintendent also act as a principal.”
After the meeting, Cherney said she did not want to give specifics about the union allegations against Lukon until she replied to the School Committee’s request for clarifications.