Concerns about classroom safety in the midst of a pandemic have led at least two Superior School District teachers to resign.

The Superior School Board on Monday, Aug. 10 approved requests from five teachers who asked to be released from their contracts for the 2020-21 school year. Two of the teachers said in their resignation letters that their decisions were due to COVID-19 concerns.

As an elementary specialist, Northern Lights Elementary School music teacher Darin Bergsven said he’s required to have close contact with nearly every student in the building each week, roughly 550 students. That environment, he said, is “unsafe for both me and my students.”

“This was not the work environment I believed I was agreeing to enter into when I signed the contract in May,” Bergsven wrote.

Diane O’Connell, a reading teacher at Superior High School, said in her letter that she worries about getting sick when she returns to school and making her family sick.

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“I was hoping to continue teaching for a year or two. I was hoping things would get better and that there would be another option for teaching this fall. I was hoping I’d feel safe coming back to school, but I don’t,” O’Connell said.

Three other releases were approved, including a teacher who was leaving to take a position in a different school district and another who stated in her resignation letter that she was doing what was best for her family.

Each was liable for liquidated damages caused by their departure, between $750 and $1,500 depending on when they made their resignation request.

“We added liquidated damages to the contract a few years ago to make up for things that we lost out when a teacher left closer to the start of school,” District Administrator Amy Starzecki told the board members, including their health savings account contribution, the cost to recruit someone for the position and the cost of a long-term substitute teacher.

The board did lower the liquidated damages amount from $1,500 to $1,000 for O’Connell, who requested leniency.

Board Vice President Christina Kintop questioned why one of the damage amounts was adjusted but not the others, saying it could lead to a slippery slope.

“I don’t think we’ll set precedents because we’re dealing with unprecedented times,” said Board President Len Albrecht. “Everybody reacts to what’s going on differently. We have to be somewhat understanding about it.”

Wage increase

The board also approved a 1% base wage increase for all teachers, staff and administrators in the 2020-21 school year at a total cost of nearly $228,000.

“If we don’t make this commitment to at least provide this salary increase we'll find ourselves in a position in a year or two to have to try to close a bigger gap,” Starzecki said. “This is an attempt to try to be thinking long-term down the road so we don't have a bigger gap we need to address.”

Business Manager Alayna Burger said she felt confident about the increase. The district has budgeted conservatively in preparing for the school year, and it was announced in July that Superior was eligible for an additional $658,000 of CARES Act funding through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund. Superior is one of 155 local education agencies in Wisconsin eligible to receive the funding.