This story is part of (DIS)Invested — a longterm Reader investigation into Omaha’s inequities.
Adam Byers didn’t have “a fraction of the support” he feels he should have as a first-year teacher in his Omaha Public Schools classroom this year. That’s why he’s resigning from the district, he told the board of education in a meeting Monday night.
“A single school year in this environment has destroyed the 20 year-long love I held for teaching,” Byers said. “I have never experienced such a toxic work environment in my life.”
Byers is one of 491 teachers the district projects to resign from their school by July 1, according to OPS data shared with The Reader as of May 16. The district initially projected 585 teachers to resign by July 1, according to district data provided to the Omaha World Herald last week. The district’s external relations administrator Bridget Blevins said on Monday that OPS staff continues to count for the most accurate and updated projection of teacher departures.
At the almost two-hour board meeting Monday night, President Shavonna Holman wanted to stress how seriously board members take this moment. She said her colleagues are each invested in OPS school communities — Holman herself has been subbing in OPS classrooms.
“Although we can’t fix and correct everything right now we are certainly doing our best and trying to figure out what we can do to assist and to keep you all encouraged,” she said. “Just know that we do care, and we do understand and we do hear you all.”
But the two OPS teachers and Omaha Education Association president Robert Miller, who spoke during the meeting’s public comment portion, said they and their colleagues still don’t feel supported.
“We do not feel valued, appreciated or otherwise,” said Michelle Settlemyer, a 23-year veteran teacher who was recently elected to serve as Omaha Education Association’s next president. “We are tired — we feel used.”
While staff shortages have mentally and physically drained teachers as they cover for colleagues on top of their own workload, increased levels of student misbehavior have teachers needing more support and safety resources, according to Settlemyer.
In board meetings throughout the year, Settlemyer and other teachers have sounded the alarm on the staffing crisis in their school buildings and identified ways to alleviate the situation, including increased wages for covering classes and scheduling fewer meetings.
“We have consistently come to the district and the board with very viable solutions to issues facing Omaha Public Schools,” Settlemyer said.
Byers, the first-year teacher who spoke during public comment, said some staff haven’t seen action and rarely feel listened to by district administration.
“I do not understand why the district has the audacity to wonder why it is hemorrhaging staff faster than it can beg people to apply when the district does not value employee feedback [and] refuses to listen to feedback the union has collected,” Byers said.
In her opening remarks, Superintendent Cheryl Logan said the district has introduced and will continue to develop solutions to the current staffing crisis.
“We acknowledge the lived reality of our staff, and while we are leading nationally and developing future talent, it does not fill every position tomorrow,” Logan said. “We will rise to meet the challenge and the need together.”
The district identified staffing as a top priority in its updated 2020 Strategic Plan of Action. Initiatives like the student-teacher stipend and the Concierge Team, made up of paid community members who assist with numerous non-instructional responsibilities in school buildings, help build a pipeline of teachers and aids, Logan said. The district is also working with teachers who planned to resign; three teachers have already rescinded their resignation, according to Logan.
Following the meeting’s public comment section, the board discussed and approved updates on the district’s bond program, which finances identified improvements to existing buildings and projects in new buildings. Phase 2, which has a $412 million budget, is on track, according to one spokesperson.
“On time, within budget during a pandemic,” said Board member Nick Thielen. “Can you speak some more as to how that happened?”
The bond’s success is due to collaboration with contractors, construction workers, and many other partners, said Mark Sommer, program manager at Jacobs Engineering, who leads the district’s bond program.
“As a collective, good decisions were made along the way…without sacrificing the quality,” Summers said.
Board members accepted certificates of substantial completion for Buena Vista High School and Westview High School, two of four new schools that will open in the 2022-2023 school year. Board member Marque Snow said opening these schools will assist in lowering class sizes.
Vice President Jane Erdenberger said families and community members are welcome to visit the new schools at upcoming open house events. Visit Buena Vista High School, 5616 L St., on June 2, and the Westview High School, 15800 Summit Plz., on June 7.
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