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Elgin teachers, staff divided over return

ELGIN  A veil of unease hung over Elgin Public Schools Wednesday on what would otherwise be a normal spring school day. 

Elementary students sat eagerly at their desks, ready to learn their next lesson. Middle school and high school students navigated the maze of hallways, heading to their locker or next class. Teachers prepared their lessons for Wednesday and beyond, counting down the days to state-mandated tests on the horizon. It would otherwise be a normal spring school day  but Wednesday was the first day classrooms, hallways and offices were filled in eight school days  since teachers walked out April 2 and marched on the State Capitol for more education funding. 

There's a divide within the faculty and staff of the school district  between those who wanted to continue fighting for more education funding and concessions from the Legislature and those who wanted to get back to the classroom to finish the school year for their students. It's a divide that's deep, but is mending. Emotions continue to run high  exacerbated by the fact there is no "good guys" or "bad guys" in this dispute. There is no hero wearing a white cowboy hat or a villain wearing a black cowboy hat. The divide is between the teachers into whom the community and parents have invested their trust. The one thing both sides have in common is the unflinching desire to continue to educate the children for whom they marched on the Capitol for not even two days prior. 

"It's all quiet and regular, which is good," said Superintendent Nate Meraz. "We have normalcy. I think that's very important to note. While there's still a lot of emotion and a lot of passion for the cause, we're back and meeting the needs of the kids."

When it became apparent that the Legislature was not going to meet the immediate needs and demands of public educators, teachers from Elgin joined thousands of others across the state in walking out, thus shutting down the school for the foreseeable future. With no defined timetable for return, Meraz solicited regular polls to staff and faculty to gauge interest in continuing the movement or returning to class. Support remained strong and educators like eighth-grade geography teacher Melissa Evon and seventh-grade reading teacher Rachel Ezell continued to volunteer their time to either demonstrate at the Capitol or to help ensure children still enjoyed a meal each day. As the walkout entered its second week, the tide began to shift toward returning back to school. Teachers secured additional funding for the classroom through two additional funding measures that taxed third-party internet sales and allowed casinos to host roulette wheel and dice games. Some, like Evon, saw it as a victory.

"I think if it was Jan. 11, and someone said teachers are getting between $5,000-7,100, support staff is getting $1,250, state employees are getting a raise and we're getting $50 million in funding and our income tax wasn't going to go up, I think we would have all said, 'oh my, this is incredible," she said.

Emotional roller-coaster 

Other teachers, like Ezell, were not so sure.

"This has been an emotional roller-coaster," she said. "You feel guilty for voting to stay out. You feel guilty for voting to stay in school. Last night, my 9-year-old was playing baseball in Anadarko and we saw their school marquis that mentioned they were still closed. He said, 'at least they're trying.' That broke my heart. If that's what my 9-year-old third-grader thinks, what are my seventh graders going to think today?"

Many educators feel that Elgin "folded" and simply gave in to a Legislature that was content to wait them out. Many students asked why the school district "gave up" on them and returned to class when further demands were not met. Why was an arbitrary day like Wednesday, April 11, chosen for students and teachers to return to the classroom when there was no movement from the state government? Meraz said he was the one who had to make that call and he's the one who has stood at the forefront of the criticism  and praise  from both sides of the issue. 

"Someone has to make a decision on the questions being asked," he said. "That's me. I'm the superintendent. I'm not going to stick my chest out or anything. But it's what the job calls for  be considerate of all sides. I listen to them, I take their input. But at some point, an organization  every organization  chooses someone to be in charge and to counsel and make wise decisions. That's me."

Poll causes ire

Much of the ire from walkout supporters was centered around the content of Monday's poll and how it was solicited from the staff. The questions were confusing, some have said. There wasn't enough time to for everyone to answer, others have said. It's a conflict that festered for the early part of the week. So Meraz stepped forward and organized a faculty and staff meeting Tuesday in an attempt to clear the air and quash any false narratives that were being spread. Who wrote those questions in the poll? Meraz did. Who made the decision for how long the poll would be active? Meraz did. Who made the decision to return to class based on the numbers in the poll? Meraz did. 

"Fifty-six percent of the staff surveyed indicated they would either come back Tuesday or Wednesday," Meraz said. "When I recorded those numbers and sent out the call to come back Wednesday, I knew there would be issues. So I met with our staff at 9 a.m. Tuesday and I'm glad I did that. One of the many benefits to a moderate size school district is that we can still get together in one room and talk. Say your piece, get things off your chest. There was some emotion. There were some questions. It was a good meeting."

Meeting clears air

Meraz made a point to fight back against the assertions that he somehow influence the outcome of the poll  either by weighing the responses or by cutting the time that people had to vote. He has stood behind the teachers since the beginning and said there is no ill will or anger directed at them or anyone who wanted to walk out. That was what he called the "elephant in the room" Tuesday. Hopefully, that elephant has been herded out and away from the school district.

"I addressed all those things in the meeting," Meraz said. "How many minds were changed, I don't know. But I have 100 percent confidence in that the people who wanted to express they wanted to come back to school were able to say that and the people who wanted to stay out could say that. People can interpret things many different ways. That was the purpose of the meeting."

Evon attended Tuesday's meeting and said it was necessary to clear the air about the accusations that had been quickly spreading across the community. The worst thing teachers and faculty could do was return to school Wednesday with a chip on their shoulders and a mind filled with conspiracy theories. People wanted hard numbers and hard facts and she said they were provided with them. 

"With so much emotion, people weren't sure about the survey," Evon said. "Getting together and saying this is how many people responded and this is how many people responded in the other surveys. It was fair and based on votes. As much as we enjoy transparency in government, that transparency is important in our schools and I'm glad we had that meeting."

Evon was among the 56 percent that voted to return to the classroom. She spent three days at the Capitol and also reached out to area legislators by sending emails on a daily basis. She was riding on a roller-coaster, along with every other teacher in the state, when the Legislature finally passed a bill that gave teachers an average of $6,100 in pay raises and a bill to fund it, then turned around and repealed the hotel-motel tax that provided $50 million in funding. Looking back, she said it was the right choice to walk out because it helped bring the plight of teachers into the spotlight and into the line of sight of so many state representatives.

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