Teachers and staff in Charlotte Public Schools will join educators across Michigan wearing red shirts to show support for public education on Wednesday – two weeks after being threatened with disciplinary action for participating in the statewide show of solidarity.
The Charlotte Education Association (CEA) also will take part in a “walk-in” that day – meeting outside before school, wearing red, and walking into school together to promote the message that lawmakers should “value students, respect educators and fund our schools.”
School employees at hundreds of buildings across Michigan have held similar events on Wednesdays this May – often joined by their district’s principals, superintendents and school board members who are also concerned about our state’s broken school funding system.
“This is about a lot more than red shirts,” said CEA President Julie Davis. “This is for the kids, who deserve to receive the funding and the services they need.”
Early this month, local union leaders told Superintendent Mark Rosekrans about plans to wear red shirts during Wednesdays in May – inviting administrators to participate – and he told Davis those wearing a red shirt would get a written warning in their personnel file.
When CEA members went ahead with plans to wear red on Wednesday, May 9, building administrators took pictures of teachers wearing the shirts, some with lettering that read, “Support Charlotte teachers as we support your students,” according to MEA UniServ Director Yvonne Briley-Wilson.
In addition, that day at least two local leaders experienced unannounced classroom observations while wearing the shirts.
By the end of the day, Rosekrans issued a staff memorandum announcing that “political action and/or protest (including wearing certain T-shirts in support of a cause) is not allowed while at work, and the failure to ignore this rule could result in discipline.”
The staff was frightened but undeterred, according to the local president and other teachers interviewed for this story. “We’re unified, we stand together, and we support public education,” Davis said.
Upset by the memo – which constituted an attack on protected union activity – staff members across Charlotte’s five buildings wore blue shirts on Thursday, May 10, but delayed a planned walk-in on the following Wednesday until a general membership meeting could be held to allay fears and gauge interest.
Bolstered by support from MEA, CEA members voted to proceed with the walk-in this week. In the meantime, the superintendent backed away from his earlier memo – sending out an email stating coordinated shirts were allowed as long as they did not contain a “political statement.”
Teachers in the district want to communicate a sense of urgency about issues facing educators in Charlotte and in many schools across the state and country, “so we can work collaboratively to solve them,” Davis said.
Educators in the district say school staffing has been cut to the bone. Without adequate paraeducators, social workers, and counselors, teachers are left without the support they need to manage difficult behaviors and differentiate instruction to the needs of students.
“We have a high-poverty population, and a lot of kids need extra help – a lot of families need help – and they don’t get that because we don’t have a social worker anymore,” one teacher said. “We have oversized classes, and trying to get to all of those kids is impossible.”
Behavior systems that should be developed and implemented school-wide are left to individual teachers to figure out, those interviewed said. In addition, the district eliminated a classroom for students with Emotional Impairment (EI), so those children remain in general education classrooms and resource rooms ill-equipped to address their needs.
Across all grade levels, school employees have seen their supply budgets shrink. Teachers interviewed for this story say they spend hundreds of dollars buying basic items for their classrooms, including books, paper, pencils, crayons, disinfectant wipes, and tissues.
And the substitute teacher shortage means faculty members routinely lose planning time filling in for absent colleagues. Title I specialists and “encore” teachers – who provide classes such as art and physical education – often sub instead of providing targeted services to students.
At the same time, the district has built up a fund equity – or rainy day fund – nearing 20 percent. The state recommends that districts hold at least 5 percent of funds in reserve. The district should not be banking money when needs are high and unmet, Davis said.
“We have a pool of money that’s not being utilized the way it was meant to be,” she said.
The resulting low morale has led to above-average teacher turnover of 15 percent a year in the past several years, she added. “Our new teacher turnover is through the roof, because you can’t keep people under these conditions.”
School employees have creative ideas, and they want to be part of a collaborative effort to solve problems, the teachers said.
“We all want kids to succeed,” said one educator who asked not to be identified. “Why can’t we all be on the same team?”