Lake Ridge teachers criticize proposed salary, benefit cut
By Christin Nance Lazerus email@example.com October 14, 2013 11:35PM
Updated: November 16, 2013 6:28AM
GARY — Lake Ridge teachers waved colorful signs and enlisted a trusty symbol — an inflatable rat — outside the Lake Ridge Schools administration building as they protested proposed cuts to their salary and benefits before Monday night’s board meeting.
The rat, which was borrowed from the Ironworkers, is commonly seen around Northwest Indiana whenever there is a work site dispute or a business is using nonunion labor. More than 50 teachers attended the picket, armed with signs like “More Hours, Less Pay Who Works For Free?,” and they garnered quite a few honks of support at the intersection of Ridge Road and Colfax Street.
The teachers’ current one-year contract ran out July 1. Lake Ridge Teachers Union president Dan Brugioni said proposals from the administration — which he said include a 3 percent pay cut, cutting severance and reducing retiree health benefits — have shown a lack of respect for teachers.
“It’s not only insulting but contemptuous,” Brugioni told the board. “Negotiations have proceeded from threats to something a little more amicable. Find a way to keep good teachers here and start right now.”
Teachers say they haven’t received a raise in eight years, while the administration has received stipends.
“We felt that it wasn’t very productive,” Johnson said. “But the administration does keep us up to date with reports after each session.”
Superintendent Sharon Johnson-Shirley said she didn’t feel it was productive to discuss negotiations in public, yet insisting that there are two sides to the story.
“We sit back at the table and we appreciate hearing everyone’s voice,” she said.
Debbie Briski teaches third grade at Hosford Park Elementary School said teaching has gotten more challenging, with increased class sizes.
“Our test scores have gone up, our schools are not on probation and this is what we get?” Briski said.
First-year teacher Mary Smith and fifth-year teacher Emily Etheridge said the lack of salary increases is particularly difficult and forces them to rely on family to help with living expenses.
“I can’t afford to live independently and as a young, single woman I find that discouraging,” Etheridge said. “I question whether I should continue working in this district when you’re not investing in me.”
Smith said she’s living paycheck to paycheck, and the situation doesn’t encourage young teachers to stay in the profession long-term.
“I shouldn’t have to fear that I can’t afford the basics,” Smith said.
Brugioni said no board members have been present for negotiations, but board president Glenn Johnson said that’s been typical for the past two to three years.
On Thursday, Johnson-Shirley confirmed that the district is facing a $2.3 million deficit in its general fund, about 80 percent of which goes to salaries and benefits. In March, the school board decided to close Grissom Elementary School to help close a $1.7 million deficit, which led to 12 teachers and 8 clerical staff getting laid off.
In April, the district’s business manager James Huddleston was forced to resign when the district found that he allegedly diverted $133,624 in school funds for his own personal use.