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Toledo's New 'Stipends' for Principals Turn Playgrounds

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Into Battlegrounds Copyright 1988

When school-board members in Toledo, Ohio, decided to provide recess for most of the city's elementary schools, they never dreamed that relatively simple decision would turn into a full-scale imbroglio.

But in the last few months, the schools' playgrounds have become a battleground: not for students, but for adults.

At issue is a $2,100 "recess stipend" for principals and assistant principals at the 40 participating schools.

The stipend has raised the hackles of Dal Lawrence, president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers. The union president claims the "outlandish sum of money" is nothing more than a thinly veiled, 6 percent pay raise for administrators.

And it violates, he says, a written agreement between the union and the school district that neither side would interfere with a school's decision to adopt recess.

By dangling so much money in front of administrators, Mr. Lawrence insists, the school board broke that promise. He has threatened to file an unfair-labor-practices charge with the state, so that teachers at the 40 schools would have another chance to reject the recess proposal.

But Keith Wilkowski, a member of the school board, says it is "crazy" to think that "anyone had in mind arm-twisting or browbeating" principals into accepting the 20-minute recess period.

And the Toledo Association of Administrative Personnel has characterized Mr. Lawrence's complaints as the "whimperings of a spoiled brat.''

According to David McClellan, president of taap, 40 out of 46 elementary schools have voted to adopt recess. The stipends were needed, he says, to cover the additional duties that principals and assistant principals agreed to assume, and they are not out of line with other stipends offered throughout the district.

School-board members approved the stipends by a 4-to-1 vote on Oct. 25. But several protested that they were not kept well-informed about the stipend negotiations, which were worked out by the school district and the administrators' union without the presence of a school-board lawyer.

Several board members also said last week that they remained mystified about how they got caught up in a battle between the two unions, when their original intention was just to give children some playtime.

In the last few years, however, the question of whether or not to offer recess has become an unexpectedly volatile issue.

In some communities where recess had quietly disappeared from the school day to make room for more academic courses, parents and educators have voiced concerns that schools are pushing youngsters too hard without giving them a chance to relax and explore their surroundings.

The issue can be a particularly heated one in urban areas, where schools may be located in unsafe neighborhoods or lack appropriate playground facilities.

In Toledo, the problem arose when a group of parents requested that board members explore the possibility of mandating recess in the city's elementary schools, which have never had a formal recess policy.

Initially, representatives of both unions opposed the idea. The teachers' union did not want its members assuming extra duties for free. It also preferred lengthening the school day only for instructional purposes. The administrators' union was also worried about potential liability problems.

Tensions escalated last June, when board members rejected a proposed teachers' contract by a 3-to-2 vote because it did not have a strong enough recess provision in it. At that point, the union threatened to go on strike.

In Mr. McClellan's view, his union came up with the "perfect compromise" by agreeing that principals would shoulder the responsibility for recess, without adding to the teachers' workday or duties.

The board proceeded to negotiate a new settlement with the teachers, and taap arrived at the $2,100 stipends in separate negotiations with the school district.

The district's total cost for the principals' stipends is $111,000. In addition, the board has hired 150 new recess aides at a cost of $407,000.

Mr. Lawrence now says he is "flabbergasted" by the size of the stipends, particularly since half of the city's teachers received a pay hike of only $1,100 out of the tft's contract negotiations.

"You are saying the responsibility for recess is twice as great as the responsibility for classroom teaching," he told board members.

Mr. McClellan claims the $2,100 stipend is not out of line. It amounts to approximately $11.67 a day, he argues--only 7 more than the daily wage for recess aides.

But George Tucker, regional director for the union that represents the recess aides--the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees--says the figures are not comparable, since one represents a paraprofessional's total salary and the other is essentially a salary bonus for administrators.

"If they were going to give any stipends at all," he says, "they should have given everybody a stipend who deals with recess."

Board members are also divided about whether recess has proven too costly.

Eventually, Mr. Wilkowski says, recess should not be an optional program, and "we would not have to have a separate stipend for principals for recess."

But for now, he says, the stipend is necessary to encourage the project's adoption. "We were committed to that, and it was money well spent."

But in the opinion of Michael J. Damas, the only board member to vote against the stipend, "Kids can play anytime they want, but not for a half-million dollars."

He also doubts whether principals will be out on the playgrounds personally supervising recess. "Hell no, they're not going to be out there," he says.

Accusations are also flying about whether everyone was kept informed during the negotiating process.

Mr. Lawrence has suggested that taap's negotiations with the school district were conducted in a "secretive" fashion--a charge that Mr. McClellan flatly denies. He claims that Mr. Lawrence knew the administrators were seeking a "significant stipend" all along.

Mr. Damas says he knew about the recess program's total cost but did not know principals were getting a "wage increase" until he received a call from a local newspaper reporter.

And Ken Perry, chairman of the school board's finance committee, suggests that "the board reallywasn't informed on some of the provisions that were agreed to by the administration."

He voted for the stipends anyway, Mr. Perry says, because they had been worked out "in good faith" by the negotiating parties.

"It wasn't anything malicious," he says of the communications problem. "It was a goof."

Suzanne Yeager, a spokesman for the Toledo Public Schools, says that "the administration feels that the board members were adequately informed of what was going on."

Meanwhile, the origin of the whole fracas seems to have faded into obscurity. Mr. Perry now claims that recess "was never a burning issue in the community."

But Mr. Wilkowski recalls that 50 to 70 parents, representing nearly all of the city's 46 elementary schools, marched on the board in June to demand a recess period.

"It was a grassroots, parent-oriented, common-sense proposal," he asserts. "I'm a parent of elementary-school children and it made eminently good sense to me."

Mr. Lawrence, Mr. Wilkowski says, "has gotten too old, so he just doesn't appreciate the happiness that a child feels when he or she can play for a short time. And that's sad."

For the moment, most parties agree, what may be sadder is the standoff on Toledo's playground battlegrounds.

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