St. John residents honked their horns and shouted words of encouragement to Julius E. Sprauve School teachers on Tuesday afternoon, February 12, as the teachers demonstrated during their lunch hour to encourage the American Federation of Teachers union and the V.I. government to finalize a new contract.
The teachers have been working without a contract since their old one expired on August 31, 2007. AFT members began negotiations in June 2007, knowing their contract would soon expire, explained JESS business teacher Clemmie Moses.
“Negotiations began in June, and they’ve been at the table ever since,” said Moses. “With no contract, the administration can do what they want, when they want. We’re encouraging management to do more, because the year is half over and we don’t have a contract.”
Attract, Keep Teachers
The contract should include wages attractive enough to bring teachers to the territory and keep them on island, explained AFT union representative Bill Judkins, a special ed teacher at JESS.
“It’s ridiculous to let this drag on as long as it has,” said Judkins. “We’re having a hard time drawing teachers here because salaries are low. We make 5 to 10 percent less than stateside teachers, and the cost of living is huge.”
The lack of permanent teachers who stay on island affects students the most, Judkins continued.
“It’s the kids who are suffering here,” he said. “We’re trying to help them become responsible citizens, but the holes in the learning process are very disruptive for these kids.”
The teachers are also hoping for a better working environment, including cleaner facilities and more materials such as computers and books, explained a JESS secondary teacher who asked not to be identified.
Teachers did not take away from instruction time for the demonstration, instead giving up their personal lunch hour to stand outside JESS with brightly-colored signs reading “Our children’s future is now, sign the contract NOW,” “Procrastination hurts our students” and “Chief negotiator, who educated you? A teacher!”
Government’s “Cat and Mouse Game”
JESS teachers are tired of waiting for the government to finalize their contract, explained Spanish teacher Jaime Lembach.
“We dislike the cat and mouse game the government likes to play,” said Lembach. “We need a better pay raise with less games. It’s embarrassing we have to remind them to do their work.”
If adjusted for inflation and cost of living, Lembach’s salary is less today than when he first began teaching in the V.I. several years ago, he added.
Teachers are simply asking for enough money to live on as the cost of living continues to increase, explained JESS special ed teacher Gwen Roberts.
“We’re just looking for what everybody else got,” said Roberts. “We just want a final decision; stop putting us off. We determine who these children will be when they grow up.”
JESS teachers demonstrated again on Thursday afternoon, February 14. Teachers have also demonstrated on St. Thomas and St. Croix.