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Peoria Federation of Teachers Claims 'Promise' Broken With Reassignment of Support Staff

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Instructional coaches and school interventionists were the hot topic at the Peoria Public Schools Board of Education meeting Monday night, and the Peoria Federation of Teachers was quick to bring the heat.

According to the PFT, an announcement was made within the district earlier this month that coaches and interventionists who were tapped to teach Acellus, the digital learning platform adopted during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, would not be returning to the positions they held prior to the pandemic; instead, they would be asked to fill open positions as full-time teachers.

PFT President Jeff Adkins-Dutro said the reassignments are in direct violation of a “promise” made to the union in previous collective bargaining sessions, and he plans to hold the district accountable.

“The promise was that if our interventionists and coaches gave up their jobs to teach Acellus during the pandemic, they would go back to their interventionist and coaching jobs for the 2021-22 school year,” said Adkins-Dutro. “A promise is a promise, and if the board of education doesn’t hold its bargaining agents to their word, we will have to consider those particular board members complicit in stabbing our members and our students directly in the back.”

Superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat recalled that bargaining discussion differently, stating the district thas no evidence of the agreement in question.

“No promise was made,” said Desmoulin-Kherat. “When promises are made, there’s a (tentative agreement), there's documentation.”

Her comments drew outbursts from PFT members at the meeting, with some calling her “disingenuous” and her statement “a lie.”

The meeting was attended by a number of union members and parents in disagreement with the district’s decision to reassign the staff members in question.

In their typical roles, instructional coaches work with teachers to address topics such as adjusting curriculum and acclimating to a new school after hiring. Interventionists work with students who require additional assistance due to learning disabilities, or other hindrances that may impede their educational progress.

Commenters made the case that changes in the classroom this year will continue affecting students in years to come, making the job of support staff more important than ever. Alona Dawson, an instructional coach at Glen Oak Community Learning Center and 27-year Peoria Public Schools veteran, added their services also aid in teacher retention in this time of shortage.

“Glen Oak has a very high teacher turnover rate. There are handfuls of new teachers in my building every single year,” said Dawson. “We play a large role in retaining teachers who might otherwise leave the district due to a lack of support.”

However, in the view of Desmoulin-Kherat, the reassignments directly address a problem the district has faced for years: classrooms without a teacher.

In her response to the comments from PFT members, Desmoulin-Kherat presented data from Friday, March 22 in which more than 30 classrooms across the district were left without a teacher. The vacancies were created by 46 unfilled teaching positions, 75 absent teachers, and a lack of substitutes.

“Every day we have kids in classrooms with substitutes for the entire year,” said Desmoulin-Kherat. “As a district, our number one priority is to ensure that each child has a qualified teacher in their classroom in front of them.”

Board member Martha Ross supported Desmoulin-Kherat’s decision, outlining her experience with her grandson who endured six substitute teachers in one year.

“I would think that no matter what classification or qualification these expert teachers have would be as qualified as a sub in some of these areas,” said Ross. “Not that subs aren’t qualified...but when you have six different subs in a year’s time, the kid that’s going to be left behind is that one that can’t pick up and go.”

Board member Dr. Anni Reinking echoed concerns from union members who, in earlier presentations, claimed they would not be qualified for some of the positions they would be asked to take on. She also raised questions on the ability of the district to meet state guidelines without interventionists and encouraged the board to pursue voting on the matter as a whole—but Desmoulin-Kherat defended her choice.

“That’s what you pay me to do,” said Desmoulin-Kherat.“There are lots of reasons why we should keep (coaches and interventionists) in their places and maintain the status quo, but is the status quo the right thing to do for our...most vulnerable students who don’t have a voice?”

Also on the agenda for Monday’s meeting was a proposed action to introduce board participation in contract negotiations with the PFT—a coincidence Reinking called “serendipitous.” She stated that, prior to the meeting, she reached out to both district and outside legal counsel to determine if other school districts had board members involved in union negotiations.

According to Reinking, district counsel stated that “a majority of the school districts have at least one board member, but never more than three” and that “the largest school districts may have a tendency to not have a board member” involved in negotiations. Unsatisfied with the answer, she sought assistance from Peoria-based law firm Miller, Hall & Triggs.

“Of the 21 school districts or education cooperatives that Miller, Hall & Triggs advises and represents,100% of those districts have board representation on the negotiations team,” said Reinking. “In my opinion, we are behind the times of transparency and holding all parties accountable.”

Board member Dan Walther supported the action, stating that when disagreements arise over promises made, the board could act as a fact-checker. Board president Doug Shaw opposed the action, preferring a more detached method like audio recording to review when necessary. The action was not adopted, with Shaw, vice president Gregory Wilson, and members Lynne Costic and Martha Ross voting "no."

The board ended the meeting without a clear conclusion to the issues raised against reassigning interventionists and instructional coaches, but Reinking still pushed for more information to be presented to the board on the effects of the changes. For Desmoulin-Kherat, she feels it is the best route in order to ensure quality education for students throughout Peoria Public Schools.

“It is the right decision to make because...the children are suffering and this is impacting their life,” said Desmoulin-Kherat. “So that’s the decision, and I chose the kids.”

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WCBU will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WCBU can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

Mike Rundle is a correspondent at WCBU. He joined the station in 2020.