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Idaho teachers union leader has tough task ahead

By Jessie L. Bonner
Associated Press / November 25, 2011
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BOISE, Idaho—The new president of the statewide teachers union has a tough task reorganizing the 13,000-member group after it took a beating during the 2011 Idaho Legislature, with measures passed to weaken their collective bargaining and phase out some job protections.

But Penni Cyr says she's up for the assignment.

Cyr is starting a three-year term as president of the Idaho Education Association after nearly 30 years teaching in Moscow public schools. Her husband, Craig, works at Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, Inc., in Pullman, Wash., and remains in Moscow, where their four adult children also live.

"I go home when I can, but it's often time to work," Cyr said.

Among her top priorities: A campaign to repeal the sweeping education changes that were signed into law earlier this year with backing from public schools chief Tom Luna and Gov. Butch Otter. The laws will go before Idaho voters in November 2012.

The measures approved by Idaho lawmakers limit collective bargaining to salaries and benefits, dump seniority as a factor in layoffs and require union negotiations to be held in public. Idaho is also introducing teacher merit pay and shifting money from salaries to help pay for the changes, which will arm every high school teacher and student with a laptop and make online classes a requirement to graduate.

"(Students) are going to be excited because they get computers," Cyr said. "But I worry, are we experimenting on our kids? Where's the research that shows one-to-one computing devices, requiring online course, is going to help students achieve greater?"

The state Department of Education countered that Luna did present research to lawmakers to support components of his plan, Students Come First, such as teacher pay-for-performance. These materials are also available online, said agency spokeswoman Melissa McGrath.

Cyr was among educators who fought the proposed changes when they were unveiled earlier this year. Opponents say the plan will undermine teachers, increase class sizes and shift state taxpayer money to for-profit, out-of-state companies that will be tapped to provide online curriculum and laptops to students.

Cyr succeeds Sherri Wood as president of IEA. Wood's six-year tenure was capped with a disappointing end when Luna's plan won legislative approval and was signed into law.

The teachers union filed a legal challenge to the portion of the plan that limits teacher negotiating power, arguing it was unconstitutional attack on educator rights, but a state court upheld the measure in September.

The union has said it plans to appeal.

At the same time, Cyr is working to forge relationships with lawmakers and Luna in her new role as union president. One of the group's chief criticisms of his overhaul has been that teachers weren't involved in crafting it. Luna points out that the union did help write the merit pay plan as part of a federal grant application.

Cyr also sits on a statewide task force created to help carry the technology components of Students Come First.

"Leaders of the teachers' union and other stakeholder groups have always been at the table as we have crafted public school budgets and key policy changes," Luna said in a statement. "Now, it is important that they remain just as involved in the implementation of Students Come First."

To his supporters, Luna is a reformer who changed an education system that was broken. They commend his plan to restructure how Idaho's scarce education dollars are spent, including better preparing students for college with more technology in the classroom.

Cyr said she is no stranger to the concept.

When she started her teaching career 28 years ago in Moscow, she was hired to run a computer lab that had been set up inside a school bus. She taught seventh graders about the history of computers and how they could use them in their everyday lives.

"Their brainchild was that I would drive that bus between the high school and the junior high," Cyr said. "It never moved."

The bus doors would freeze during winter, presenting logistical problems. But even then, Cyr said, teachers realized the importance of technology in the classroom.

"We all recognize that students need the ability to work with technology," Cyr said. "The problem is how it's funded."

The new education laws shift money from employee pay and benefits over several years to help pay for the changes.

This year, the state is shifting about $14.7 million from salaries to increase the minimum teacher pay; restore salary increases for teachers who further their education; and pay for high school students who graduate early to earn college credits.

Some school districts have reported the reduced money for salaries has resulted in fewer teachers and larger class sizes.

Cyr likens the scenario to the failed school bus computer experiment.

"The computers worked, putting it in a bus didn't work. It was the physical environment that didn't work," Cyr said. "I think we're creating similar physical environment by reducing the number of teachers in the state."

Cyr and other members of the technology task force will convene once more in December before making recommendations to lawmakers in 2012. Cyr said her aim all along has been to make sure no detail is left out as the group helps implement these big changes.

"Being here, it's making sure that we're keeping the best interests of our students and their learning at the front of everything we're doing," she said.

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