The Cost of Teacher Protests

2018-09-07

Early in SY 2017-18, Oklahoma educators had threatened to walkout in protest of stagnant wages, out-of-date textbooks, lack of supplies and other issues. Emboldened by the successful teacher protests in West Virginia that started in late February, the teachers in the Sooner State protested in late April. The walkouts lasted 10 days.

SNA Members Jeff Denton and Liz Glaser work in the school nutrition department for the Ponca City Public Schools (PCPS), and the walkouts put them in a kind of limbo. Districts in the state could elect to close schools or not, and their district decided to close. As teachers from across the state protested at the state capitol, no one from district administration down to hourly employees really knew what to expect.

As the walkouts played out, it became clear, however, how layered the situation was for school nutrition operations. One major layer was the impact on the financial bottom line. And in turn, it directed a spotlight on an often-overlooked department that is frequently left to fend for itself. You guessed it…school nutrition!

No Demand for Meals

Ponca City Public Schools (PCPS)
Photo: Ponca City Public Schools Facebook page

Unlike other Oklahoma districts that ran different feeding programs to help youth, PCPS does not offer such programs. Denton and Glaser opted not to serve meals because they “knew students would not come.” What also influenced their decision was the district does not have a Seamless Summer feeding program, through the USDA, which helps reimburse summer meals. Even if they did have that program, clarifies Denton, he still would have made the same decision.

“We were trying to see if there was a demand,” says Denton, director of child nutrition. Other community centers were hosting their own feeding programs. Denton and Glaser visited a few sites to see volunteers eagerly waiting outside—but no one was showing up. Denton also adds that after community blowback to the teachers about how the walkouts affected meal service, teachers orchestrated their own feeding sites.

Although the district has a 70% free- or reduced-price participation rate, student participation in feeding programs has always been low. As spring break wrapped up the week before the walkouts, Glaser adds, the kids had to have been fed during that time, too, without the help of their department. While maybe not the most nutritious meals, they took comfort knowing that the students were still getting fed somehow.

During the walkouts, the department had to take each day one at a time, waiting to see if schools would come back in session. As they waited, staff were called in to do minimal food prep the night before just in case schools would reopen. They also made sack lunches for students taking the ACT and charged customers the adult price for lunch because there was no school.

“They weren’t happy with that, but that’s the law,” explains Glaser, assistant director of Child Nutrition. “So instead [test coordinators] bought them pizza at the last minute. So, we lost money from that, too.” When the 10 days had finished, the damage was done, and the financial losses had a significant impact on the department.

Getting the Board on Board

As the walkouts began, Denton learned that the School Board had a limited understanding of just how the department ran. Trying to look on the bright side, Denton saw this as a teachable moment for district administration. Denton was able to explain how the department worked and how exactly it was funded.

“One of the hardest things I had to do was get our Board and superintendent to understand when you lose the opportunity to serve a lunch, you never get that money back,” Denton recalls. “We need a certain amount of business on an annual basis to meet our fixed costs.”

As Denton tried to explain the situation to district administration, he felt as though they “knew really little” about the role of the school nutrition department. The administration, he continues, did not understand that although classes were not in session, the department was still losing money because of a lack of reimbursed meals.

“Our district is not that big,” he says. “I think we lost over $225,000…I don’t know if I ever really got them to realize that when you don’t have an opportunity to serve a meal, and you’re counting on 172 days of service, then you get penalized financially.”

Denton and Glaser also had to educate the board that their losses went far beyond produce. (And they did lose about $5,000 worth of fruits and vegetables.)

“When you cut days out of the school year, but still have to pay salaries, then you’ve accomplished nothing except get the public’s sympathies.”

Denton explains, “We need these days to make money. I think [the Board] understands now. But I heard the words ‘unintended consequences’ about 10 or 15 times per day.”

For over 25 years, Denton says the department has managed a positive funds balance. The loss of these 10 days, he explains, changed that. The funds were “systemically dismantled” by about 30%.

“We’ll never make that up. It took us forever to make it to that point,” says Denton.

Glaser shares an example of impact: “I have two ovens at the high school. We were going to buy new ones this summer, and I wasn’t able to do that because of [the walkouts].”

Helping Hands

Ponca City Public Schools (PCPS)
Photo: Ponca City Public Schools Facebook page

During the walkouts, school nutrition department employees, crossing guards and bus drivers were not getting paid. Although the 78 school nutrition employees were able to make up the missed days once school had let out, it was not reflected in their paychecks for several weeks. Many workers struggled in the interim.

“The problem wasn’t that they weren’t getting paid,” explains Denton. “The problem was they weren’t getting paid in that month.”

Because the walkouts played out in April, near the end of the school year, deductions for health care costs were removed in double to cover the summer months. That worsened the financial blow.

“I know someone who got a $6 paycheck,” Glaser says. “I also know someone who got a $40 paycheck.”

News spread of the departments plight throughout district colleagues, including the police department’s public information officer. In a social media post, the officer made a plea to help the affected employees.

With the support of a local bank, a drive was created to help the department’s employees pay their electric bills. The Facebook post continued to be shared throughout the community and raised over $6,100.

“We helped a total of 51 people,” explains Glaser. “It made up for our hearts being so broken.”

The money went to those who needed it most and helped pay their bills and rent. Some employees would only take their share “if there was enough,” says Glaser. Four declined wanting to give the money to their colleagues.

“Everyone all over the state was helping the teachers,” Glaser adds. “They were getting food cards and gas cards like they were destitute. They were still getting full pay. That’s when we wanted it to be known that some were not getting paid and that they had nothing.”

Collateral Damage

Employees with PCPS’ school nutrition department were not alone in their financial struggles. Departments in the affected states also were hugely impacted by the protests. And the walkouts resulted in more than just revenue loss: It affected other logistical and financial issues including perishable inventory, receiving, paying employees, menus and staffing.

To learn more about how impactful the walkouts were, check out the “Walking Out on School Nutrition” in the September edition of School Nutrition.

As SY 2018-19 begins, there are questions about if the walkouts could happen in other states, or if educators in the previously affected states could protest again. No one knows the answer, and Denton doesn’t like that uncertainty.

The Oklahoma walkouts could be considered a success as teachers gained an extra $6,000 to their salaries and support staff will receive an extra $1,250. However, the funds to pay for the salary increases in the school nutrition department, and others, will go to the general fund of the district. Then those funds may not go directly to the department.

“Most likely, we won’t get it to pay the raises that we’re mandated to give our employees,” explains Glaser. And that money instead will come straight out of their fund balance.

“Be careful what you wish for,” adds Denton.

Ponca City Public Schools (PCPS)
Photo: Ponca City Public Schools Facebook page

Beth Roessner is the senior editor at School Nutrition and wrote about the impact of the teacher walkouts in SY2017-18. She can be reached at broessner@schoolnutrition.org. To view more stories on this topic, including the difference between protest and strike, check out the September issue of School Nutrition.

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