Teachers quiz Pike at open house

Legislator apologizes for her 'ignorance' on education, vows to study up

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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CAMAS — State Rep. Liz Pike answered Friday to a crowd of educators hurt by her recent Facebook post, which told teachers to get a new job if they weren't happy with their pay.

"I should have selected my words much more carefully," the Camas Republican told the group of about 40 people at her Camas legislative office. "It was a little snarky."

Pike said she wrote the post after getting home from a memorial service for a deceased family member, opening her email inbox, and seeing hundreds of nearly identical emails from teachers who were asking for cost-of-living pay increase. She added: "I guess I was a little frustrated."

She also said her post didn't have all of the facts straight about teacher pay. For example, Pike acknowledged that teachers are paid for working 180 days a year, and not for the days they don't work during the summer.

"I regret that I was not informed," she said, adding that there was "a little bit of ignorance on my part."

The group visited the Camas office during a public open house Pike organized as a way to keep in touch with her constituents. She was joined by another 18th District legislator, state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center. Members of the public squeezed into the lobby to talk with the legislators, and the crowd overflowed out past her office's front door.

Throughout the tense two-hour conversation, educators continued to vent their frustrations over Pike's Facebook comments. They told her they felt demoralized and publicly demeaned. Several said they spend $1,000 to $2,000 of their own money each year to buy school supplies for their students, that they work more than eight hours a day during the school year, and that it's not easy to support their families with the salaries they receive.

"When we get a Facebook post like that, it hurts our soul," said Michele Robertson, a special education teacher at Frontier Middle School in Vancouver.

Mary Mendoza said she is a single mother with a hearing-impaired child, and that she makes roughly $48,000 a year teaching in Battle Ground. She told Pike that she has found it difficult to pay for hearing aids while also trying to save for her daughter's college tuition.

Rather than buying supplies for her students, Mendoza said, that's "money I should be spending on my own children."

After hearing one member of the crowd say he quit teaching because the sacrifices were too great, Pike told the group she was bothered by the "high burnout rate" among teachers.

Others at the event supported some of the points Pike made in her Facebook post. From an outsider's perspective, the education system seems broken, and dropout rates are high, a few in the crowd said. It makes taxpayers weary of spending even more money on that system, they said.

Pike and other legislators don't just represent teachers or public unions, Ed Madden said; "they have to try to represent all of us."

Rivers, a former sixth-grade teacher, pointed out that she and Pike publicly supported the Battle Ground School District's levy this year. They got a lot of pushback from constituents who didn't want the tax increase to pass, Rivers said.

Rivers also pointed out that legislators passed an operating budget this year that adds $1 billion into the K-12 education system. As that money begins working its way into the system, Rivers said, she and Pike need to keep communication with teachers open.

"We need to be in partnership," Rivers said.

The Facebook post

Pike made the Facebook post last month, inciting outrage from teachers all across the state.

"Congratulations on enjoying your last day of the school year," Pike wrote in the post. "If I had the opportunity to choose my career all over, I would have opted to get the necessary degree and teaching certificate so that I too could enjoy summertime off with my children, spring break vacations, Christmas break vacations, paid holidays, a generous pension and health insurance benefits."

Pike, who also works as an advertising consultant, continued: "Instead, I chose to work a career in private sector business so that I could be one of those taxpayers who funds your salaries and benefits as a state employee in a local school district. … Furthermore, teachers who are dissatisfied with their pay and benefits should look for work elsewhere so that someone who is inspired to greatness can take their place in the classroom. Our children deserve an exceptional and inspired teacher in every classroom. Don't you agree?"

In her Facebook post, Pike also blamed teachers' unions for the state of the nation's public education system.

"The big difference between the U.S. public education system and others in the world is that we have unions that only care about the adults in the system," Pike wrote. "Since the rise of teachers unions in this nation, our public education system has deteriorated."

Friday's apology

During the public meeting Friday afternoon, Pike apologized for the Facebook post, and she said she would write a new Facebook post that explains how she really feels about teachers and the education system.

Pike was elected to the state House in November and began her first term as a legislator in January. She was placed on the House Education Committee, and prior to her controversial Facebook comments, she started organizing a series of education "kitchen cabinet" meetings to learn more about the state's education system. One of those meetings took place Monday, she said.

She also has appointments to visit teachers in their classrooms to get a better understanding of what it's like to be a teacher.

Pike said that she supports teachers, but she still is "not a big fan" of government employee unions, including the Washington Education Association. She said the WEA can afford to send lobbyists to Olympia, but "who represents the taxpayer?"

In the end, Pike said, she wishes she had expressed herself differently.

"I made an entire occupation mad at me," Pike said.

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523; http://facebook.com/reportermathieu; http://twitter.com/col_politics; stevie.mathieu@columbian.com.