Guest Columnist

A true matter of safety at stake in C.R. schools

A school bell at the Educational Leadership and Support Center for the Cedar Rapids Community School District at 2500 Edgewood Road NW. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
A school bell at the Educational Leadership and Support Center for the Cedar Rapids Community School District at 2500 Edgewood Road NW. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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Given the heartbreaking news of yet another mass shooting, the Cedar Rapids community might be surprised to learn there is no federal law determining natural or non-natural disaster planning in Iowa’s public schools.

So, in response to the shooting in Parkland, Fla., the Iowa Legislature will pass a new state law directing school districts to have security plans for natural and non-natural disasters. The law does not describe what the plans should be or who should be involved with developing them, just that a school district must have them in place.

Given this information, our community may also wonder why the Cedar Rapids Community School District is proposing to remove health and safety from the binding master contract into a non-binding employee handbook, along with many other important items.

Iowa’s new collective bargaining law allows an employer to remove all but base wages from a binding master contract. There are many items that are allowed and should be kept in the master contract. Health and safety are on this list. The Cedar Rapids Community School District has proposed to remove everything but base wages.

By definition, a contract is a voluntary arrangement between two or more parties that is enforceable by law as a binding legal agreement.

An employee handbook is given to employees by an employer with a disclaimer that it is not a contract and includes a statement that it may change over time without notice.

While administrators argue the employee handbook could be legally binding, the law and common sense say otherwise. Can you imagine a local bank giving you a car or home loan without a contract and just an outline for paying back the loan?

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One of the many reasons removing everything out of a Master Contract into an employee handbook is so harmful is that it doesn’t take into account the important items that have been and could be agreed upon, including professional development and safety. The Iowa State Education Association would love to talk about class size as a matter of safety and include that in a legally binding agreement.

In my fifth-grade classroom at Hiawatha Elementary, I knew that how many children I had in my classroom had an impact on how much time I could spend sorting out who felt sad, bullied or wasn’t getting the attention he or she deserved. I knew an overcrowded classroom meant that in an emergency, it would be more difficult for me to ensure their safety.

Most important, individual instruction and attention is essential for our youngest students’ sense of value and self-worth. This has an impact on what kind of people these students become in their high school years and beyond.

So, yes, how many children we pack into our classrooms is a matter of safety. And our evacuation plans for natural and unnatural disasters look different to the elementary special education teacher than they do to the high school math teacher. Removing the ability of educators to negotiate these items alone jeopardizes the health and safety of our students, our own lives, and those in the community.

Iowa’s new collective bargaining bill does not require the Cedar Rapids Community School District to remove all but base wages from the master contract. We would like our employers to remember to trust that educators have the interests of our students and the community in mind when we go to the negotiations table. Our teaching environment also is our students’ learning environment and one that needs to be the safest and best it can be. As Parkland demonstrated, we are all in this together.

The beauty of a master contract is that it is there for the community as well as the school district. Like a marriage contract, faith is at its core. It’s not about the current administration, the current members of the school board or even the current employees; it is a public commitment that the principles of caring for our students are important enough that they cannot be changed overnight. Employees would much prefer to talk about the valuable things that improve student learning, safety and professional practices than a contract or a handbook.

• Tammy Wawro is the president of the Iowa State Education Association, which is a private, professional organization of educators.

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