Hours before the next round of teacher contract mediation Monday night, three teachers from Gruening Middle School organized a teacher walkout at an Anchorage School Board meeting. The move of solidarity included hundreds of Anchorage School District teachers to show the school board the teachers' frustration throughout the current process. 

"It certainly shows that the teachers feel strongly about wanting to have a contract," ASD deputy superintendent Dr. Mark Stock said. "The way we look at it is the school board, administration and teachers all want to have a contract. The community would like to recruit and retain the best teachers we can for our students, they deserve it." 

Friction between the school district and teachers stems from new curriculum implementation, lack of communication, teacher pay and classroom safety: all issues that are apparent to the district.

"We knew about the walkout and it didn't surprise us," school board president Starr Marsett said. "Teachers have to do what they have to do, but we are listening." 

Marsett said after Monday night's school board meeting the board went back into executive session to discuss negotiating plans for mediation on Tuesday and Wednesday. 

"All school boards across the country are facing the same thing," Marsett said. "We're all asking more of our teachers. We're not saying that you can't use your own freedom to incorporate and make the classroom interesting. That's where miscommunication is coming in. We thought maybe having something in writing for the teachers would help to let them know what the flexibility is."

Marsett said something had to be done throughout the district and it wasn't the superintendent's decision, although she's taken the brunt of the criticism. 

"This might not be popular to say," Marsett said. "As a board we have directed the superintendent to bring our reading scores up. Our current numbers are unacceptable. What we've done in the past has not worked so we are trying to do something different. I understand the academic freedom but I also know teachers had a lot of academic freedom and not that they did a bad job but we are not moving the needle. We are not progressing so you can't be doing the same thing and expect different results."

Bradley Kirr, a Gruening Middle School teacher, weighed in against the district's stance.

"We have testified about needing academic freedom to individualize, enrich and create exploration within the mandated programs," Kirr said. "Your response was we are due that freedom and the lack of freedom must be a site-based issue. That's not true. ASD is still refusing to add that component in our contract. Many principals feel they need to write up teachers who deviate from scripted lessons or they will receive retaliation, and they just might. We hear about instructional coaches talking about freedoms at certain sites. What sites? Not all of them! Academic freedom is part of AEA's bargaining proposal that would give us 50 to 60 more minutes of instructional time with our students each week. It was denied and instead we were given a 20 percent increase in workload."

The school district feels it's running out of options and needs to do something to make it work for the future of the students, administration and teachers.

"It's going to take everyone," Marsett said. "I respect our teachers, they have a tough job. There is no doubt about it. I'll tell you right now, I wouldn't want to be a teacher. I was a substitute and that was enough for me. They have a tough job but love what they do."

The school district says they'd love to give the teachers everything they are asking for, but others factors play into the final decisions. 

"Our budget is offset by declining enrollment which reduces the amount of revenue," deputy superintendent Stock said. "That impacts retaining teachers and makes it challenging all the way around. There's no question Alaska's economic situation is not a secret and we have issues with the budget and are trying to make it work."

The district is doing everything it can with its current budget. 

"Money is a big issue there is no doubt," Marsett said. "We don't have any counselors, we just cut custodial this year, we cut IT this year. We've cut a lot of things. People bring up the consultant we've brought up. No matter who you are, if you don't have the expertise you have to go outside to get it. That's just our due diligence. It's not that we want to spend that money, it's just that we have to in order to make good decisions sometimes." 

The school board and the school district are hoping to work out a three year contract with the teacher's union. Teacher's are currently working without a new contract and under the guidelines of the old contract which expired on June 30, 2018. 

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