FORT COVINGTON — On a frigid and rainy December evening, in the midst of a global pandemic with COVID-19 cases climbing, more than 100 teachers, retirees, community members, and parents — carrying signs, clad in masks, and socially distanced — marched outside an emergency meeting of the Salmon River Board of Education.
Outside the building in which the board was gathered, there were also 35 folding chairs, all of them empty, each one bearing a sign that read: “I’m a teacher who left Salmon River to teach somewhere else.”
“There is a cultural problem in the fabric of our district right now,” said Adam Schrader, president of the Salmon River Teachers Association. “During my first 12 years here, you could count on one hand the number of teachers who left. Now, in the last five years, which coincides with this superintendent’s tenure, we have lost 35. They left for other districts or decided to leave to teach in correctional facilities around here. They gave up tenure, seniority and took cuts in pay. Turnover like this is unheard of elsewhere.”
The problems in the district vary and run deep, he said. They include the micromanagement of teachers and their schedules, district administration continuously questioning the attendance of faculty —including those who are pregnant or suffer from significant health issues — and management’s meddling in union elections by encouraging people to challenge SRTA leadership.
This month, the labor strife came to a head when on Dec. 2, Superintendent Stanley Harper suddenly ordered students and teachers in Salmon River to return to the classroom in six days, despite the November recommendation by Franklin County health officials to keep schools closed until after the new year due to the escalation in positive COVID-19 cases countywide.
Schrader said the order to return to school while COVID cases were climbing posed a serious threat to the health of students and teachers, was disruptive to the delivery of academic instruction, and risked the safety of staff suffering from underlying health issues. As part of the district order, in fact, those teachers in need of special workplace accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act would be required to re-apply for those accommodations — after returning to school.
Schrader characterized the superintendent’s decision to reopen schools as “unilateral” and “abrupt,” adding it continued a pattern of unwillingness on the part of Harper to hold an open dialogue with the local.
And, in a letter to his membership following the superintendent’s order, Schrader said it was “reprehensible” that the administration would arbitrarily make “hundreds of students, from hundreds of households, gather together in the same rooms all day long, even as the number of active COVID-19 cases reaches unprecedented levels in both Franklin and St. Lawrence counties, all with the potential for being quarantined – or even gravely ill – leading right into the holidays.”
But Harper, in a Dec. 2 letter to the community, said his decision was made in consultation with county health officials, as well as neighboring districts and Franklin-Essex-Hamilton BOCES.
“Since our decision to move to remote instruction in November, the landscape in our area has changed,” Harper said. “Studies and data have shown that schools are usually safer than the general community. Many government officials have embraced that data and are advocating for students to stay in school as much as possible.”
Schrader said Harper’s order and the way it was handled was the “wake-up call” necessary to bring his members together. He also credits the Board of Education for calling an emergency meeting Dec. 9 — at which more than 100 demonstrators gathered — to discuss the local’s concerns.
“I’m grateful to the Board of Education. They really listened and have taken our concerns seriously,” Schrader said. “And as for the support we’ve received from retirees, families and the community — it’s just been remarkable. A significant number of people came out because they wanted to have their voices heard. It showed my members that we are not alone. And I think that’s something I’d want to share with our sister locals and with locals statewide: We aren’t alone in this.”
Schrader said he’s “cautiously optimistic” moving forward.
A recent meeting in which concerns were discussed brought together SRTA leaders, a NYSUT labor relations specialist, the district superintendent, other administration officials and a representative from the board of education. And, Schrader said, arrangements have been put in place to have a board member present at labor-management meetings.
“I’ll be honest, we just had an uncomfortable meeting, but it was necessary to clear the air,” said Schrader. “I’m hoping now that we have started moving in the right direction.”