GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - Invoking the contentious days of former superintendent Bernard Taylor, the president of the Grand Rapids teachers union said Monday his members feel upset and betrayed by some of the decisions of West Michigan's largest school district.
Paul Helder, president of the Grand Rapids Education Association, said a new evaluation system is unfair and subjective. He also said more teachers are getting laid off this year than the union was told.
"We've got to find a better way to work together than were doing right now because I feel like we're sliding back to where we were under the former superintendent," Helder told the board during the public comment portion of Monday's meeting.
"[The evaluation] becomes a popularity contest," he told 24 Hour News 8. "Our district has so many problems with nepotism. So many other issues, to open this up and allow everyone to pick their pals is a real issue."
Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal held her ground, saying the evaluations are fair.
"At the end of the day, the president of GREA will not have a voice in what someone gets on their evaluation," she said.
Neal acknowledged that the district is using a new evaluation process for teachers in which an effective rating trumps tenure. It's a change districts all around the state made. She said unintentional mistakes may have been made in this first year, but she stands by both the evaluations and the decision to lay off more than 100 teachers either because they're ineffective, because of declining student enrollment and/or due to loss of funding.
"We're never going to please each teacher, though at the end of the day we have a process we're going to follow," Neal said. "I expect to even next year lay people off according to their evaluation."
Helder said the process just isn't consistent or transparent, saying many of those doing the evaluations don't have teaching experience.
"It's all just in the dark," he said. "It's a completely a subjective process where different administrators are doing it differently."
He also called out the district for the high number of layoffs this year, saying he was led to believe only about 30 teachers would be let go -- a fraction of the final number.
The district is also projecting to lose about 700 students for the next school year. Each child represents a loss of several thousand dollars to the district. If those projections are off and more students return, some teachers may be called back, but numbers won't be final until the start of school.
"If you have 700 fewer students, how can you reduce your staff by 160 without absolutely exploding class size? That's our concern," he said.
That number combines layoffs with the number of teachers who are retiring.
"I have to do what's best for children and not what's best for adults," Neal said.
Helder doesn't buy that, saying he, too, is trying to think of the kids.
"None of this has been what's best for kids. It's all just how can we find another way to save a million dollars that we will claim we don't have later," he said.
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