Teacher protest

Teachers and other attendees speak at a protest last week in front of the Fort Bend ISD administration building, seeking higher wages and more security from the district. (Photo by Matt deGrood)

The teachers aren’t all right.

For months now, school administrators and experts in districts across Fort Bend County and the country have talked about an exodus of teachers from the profession and how they might go about staunching the loss.

All of it came to a head last week when a group of teachers protested with several organized labor groups outside Fort Bend ISD’s administration building, seeking better salaries, safety precautions and smaller class sizes, among other issues.

“I taught for 31 years and, last year, my salary was only about $16,000 higher than a first-year teacher,” said Terri Verdone, a teacher who opted for retirement from FBISD.

Verdone spoke at last week’s protest and laid out how more and more paperwork, few raises and retention bonuses and a seemingly uncaring administration had led her to decide not to return next school year.

“I’m content with my decision, but I will miss my students,” she said.

Local and national education experts have known that teachers were leaving the profession. Through just the first six months of the fiscal year, about 470 teachers had quit before their contracts were complete – a significant uptick from other recent years, such as 2020 when 378 left before their contracts ended, according to an April Texas Tribune article.

FBISD Superintendent Christie Whitbeck, for instance, spoke about more than 120 teacher vacancies in December – shortly after her arrival – and the need to maintain high teacher pay to recruit high-quality candidates.

The average starting teacher salary in FBISD is about $58,000, she said at the time.

Representatives for the district, in response to the protest, released a media statement that argued that they have increased teacher pay.

The new budget, for instance, includes a $1,500 increase for teachers and a 2 percent raise for non-teaching staff, according to the district’s response. That, coupled with a 6 percent teacher raise and a 4 percent raise for non-teaching staff last year, make FBISD comparable to surrounding school districts, according to the news release.

The teachers and organizers who gathered last week said they were frustrated FBISD hasn’t yet taken steps to increase teacher pay like some area districts, such as Houston ISD, which last week approved a pay increase that will give teachers an 11 percent raise on average. But the protesters’ frustrations with the profession went far beyond just pay.

Glenda Macal, the president of Fort Bend AFT, a union that represents FBISD teachers, laid out teachers’ concerns through the organizing group’s RESPECT campaign.

“R” stands for raising salaries, “E” stand for expectations within reason, “S” is for safety and security, “P” is for not taking away teachers’ planning times, the second “E” is for eliminating mandated extra duties, “C” is for the cap in student/teacher ratios and “T” is for trust in teachers’ professional expertise, Macal explained.

“Houston just gave teachers an 11 percent salary increase,” she said. “That’s respect. We are losing teachers all the time to other districts, retirement and just leaving the profession.”

FBISD trustee David Hamilton said earlier this month he had also heard complaints about the district not backing teachers in instances of student discipline.

“I think it might be more of a problem in middle school than high school, but they don’t feel safe and because of the bad behavior, they can’t teach,” he said.

Teachers’ call for higher salaries and more resources comes as FBISD faces a budget deficit for the upcoming fiscal year of about $47 million, according to budget documents. The district’s general fund is about $768 million, according to planning documents.

Despite that shortfall, Macal said she thought some bad programming could be eliminated to find funding to give teachers bigger salaries.

“We can’t drop the ball,” she said. “It’s important to pay teachers so the good ones stay.”

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