Birmingham Chief Ends Teacher Strike By Giving Up Contract

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The superintendent of the Birmingham, Ala., schools gave up his new contract last week to settle a two-day teacher strike that kept more than 30,000 students home from school.

The strike followed the school board's Nov. 9 decision to give Superintendent Johnny Brown a two-year contract extension and an increase in pay and benefits that would have boosted his compensation from $151,000 to $181,000 a year.

After mounting discontent with the vote prompted some 800 teachers to walk off the job Nov. 12, the 2,400-member Birmingham Education Association took a strike vote. About half the district's teachers, joined by bus drivers and lunchroom workers, were absent Nov. 15 and 16.

"The respect that employees need to have for leadership is not there," Gwen Sykes, the president of the National Education Association affiliate, said last week. "This was a slap in the face—that [Brown] deserves it when we're the ones in the trenches."

At an emergency meeting on the second day of the strike, school board members voted 5-0 to rescind the new contract, which would have extended Mr. Brown's employment from 2001 to 2003.

Teachers also were upset about recent pay increases for other top district administrators, some of whom got raises of $20,000 a year at a time when teachers received increases of 1 percent to 1.5 percent, or about $500 per teacher.

But Mr. Brown argued that a management study conducted for the district last summer found that teachers' salaries were competitive with those in surrounding districts, while administrators' pay lagged behind.

"I'm not debating this—our teachers ought to make as much as possible," the superintendent said last week. "But the administrators' pay was, in some cases, less than those they supervise."

The superintendent said he intended to renegotiate his contract at a later time.

'Comfort Zone' Disturbed

When Mr. Brown joined the Birmingham schools in January 1998 from the Wilmer-Hutchins district outside Dallas, 31 of the city's 74 schools were "on alert," meaning that they did not meet state standards for student achievement. Today, Mr. Brown said, only eight schools are in that category.

Half the principals in the district are new, and 54 employees, including some teachers, have been dismissed since last spring. The district also is in the midst of a $52 million technology project that will connect every school to the Internet, and it is building a new high school for the first time in 30 years.

Such rapid changes, said the Rev. Larry D. Coleman, the president of the school board, have "disturbed the comfort zone of many people."

"Before Dr. Brown came to Birmingham, the system was on the razor-sharp edge of being taken over by the state," Mr. Coleman said. "Now, we're in the academic clear."

But Ms. Sykes said teachers in the 38,000-student district have felt intimidated by Mr. Brown's take-charge management style, and she accused him of intimidating people who disagreed with him. "We didn't like the way he prioritized or managed, or his thinking," she said.

The superintendent said he encourages people to express their views. "But the way to do that is at the table," Mr. Brown said, "with the children in school."

Alabama teachers do not have the right to bargain collectively, but the state has seen strikes. In 1979, teachers in Walker County walked out for a month to protest the firing of 42 teachers in a budget-cutting move.

Last week, teachers in the 2,600-student Ketchikan, Alaska, district were on strike in a dispute over their salaries.

Vol. 19, Issue 13, Page 5

Published in Print: November 24, 1999, as Birmingham Chief Ends Teacher Strike By Giving Up Contract
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