Retired teachers, East Aurora school officials come to an understanding
By Denise Crosby firstname.lastname@example.org March 6, 2013 9:15PM
Updated: April 8, 2013 7:40AM
While no one was singing “Kumbaya” at the end, there was definitely a more positive spirit filling the air Wednesday after East Aurora School District officials sat down with a group of retired teachers who had been hammering the district lately with Freedom of Information requests and embarrassing questions.
In an attempt to calm the fires, East Aurora attorney Bernie Weiler took those who had gathered around the table through a detailed explanation of why the district had no choice but to quickly force these former educators into a much costlier insurance plan. In the end, it came down to rising costs and the changing nature of the many complex and convoluted insurance plans out there — a problem that was exacerbated by serious bookkeeping issues that led to the resignation of East Aurora’s finance director and the firing of his assistant.
While Weiler’s summary was not going to put any dollars back into their pockets, the former teachers called it a “reasonable explanation.” Still, this group of special education teachers — who had been through layoffs, frozen salaries and limited funds for basic classroom supplies over their years working in the impoverished district — wanted to let these officials know how hurt they were by the way the issue was handled. An emotional Connie Dieterich talked about “the grief you go through” when you retire after giving 35 years to a district, and the anger that follows when you feel as if you have been kicked to the curb because “nobody appreciated us or cared.”
When they started seeing problems and went to the finance office for help, Dieterich said, they were getting answers that didn’t add up. And when they tried to report these red flags, “no one listened.”
Board President Annette Johnson told the group she, too, began demanding answers when she saw problems — problems that eventually revealed themselves as jaw-dropping discrepancies in the internal controls of the finance department.
One thing they could all agree on: Communication has been seriously lacking in the district. Part of the reason teachers weren’t notified earlier of the changes in insurance, Weiler said, was because of the “frenetic pace” at which the district was forced to respond when this perfect storm of financial and insurance problems came to light.
This meeting, both sides agreed, was a positive step in the district’s goal toward clearing up communication channels, including those between administrators and teachers — both current and retired. Certainly it’s the only way to move away from the hurt feelings, distrust and angry rhetoric that has overshadowed the many positive things going on at East Aurora.
It was obvious both sides felt better, as the dialogue switched from insurance issues to how the retired teachers could be part of the solution. Suggestions included offering them stipends to serve as mentors to the many young instructors; or using them as consultants. The extra money would come in handy, they noted, especially with these increased insurance costs. And who, after all, has more expertise and concern than those who have given their entire careers to East Aurora students?
One thing they could teach the newbies, offered Dieterich, is that communication, empathy and trust are essential when dealing with special ed parents, who so often are going through grief and anger.
While there was no “Kumbaya” around a campfire, the conversation had come full circle. And on that happy note, both sides agreed to keep it going.