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Angry Teachers Shout Down deJongh, Russell

Gov. John deJongh Jr. faced a restive audience Friday.An auditorium full of angry teachers, led by a former union official chanting "No! No! No!", shouted down Gov. John deJongh Jr. and Senate President Ronald Russell Friday morning at the St. Croix Federation of Teachers’ 32nd annual conference devoted to professional development.

The two were among a handful of speakers who had been invited to address the opening session of the conference. Some 300 or more union teachers filled the auditorium at the St. Croix Educational Complex, where the buzz of conversation made it difficult to hear the speakers in the hall, which has notoriously poor acoustics.

That crowd’s buzz rose to an excited pitch when James Howell, president of the union’s St. Croix local 182, took the microphone and admonished the governor – who was sitting at the dais behind him – to protect the interest of the common people instead of big companies.

Howell drew cheers when he told the teachers that their worth "is not measured by your paycheck," but by "the lives you change."

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Then Senate President Russell took the podium, and the noise rose in pitch and took on a hostile edge. When he said, "Don’t lose trust in your elected officials," the crowd jeered, and the remainder of his remarks were lost in shouts and catcalls.

Similarly, when deJongh began speaking it was possible to make out his early words, as he acknowledged that teachers – who had their salaries cut by eight percent earlier this year – were unhappy, but said both sides needed to keep talking, and work together to find solutions to the economic problem facing the territory.

He began talking about thousands of teachers losing their jobs in other regions hit hard by the economic slump. But when he said people need to "put aside individual needs" to work together, the audience began yelling.

At that point, Tyrone Molyneaux, former president of the local teacher’s union, came striding down the aisle chanting "No! No!" and the hall exploded in cheers. DeJongh smiled in greeting at the interloper, went to the front of the stage and shook his hand.

But that didn’t mollify Molyneaux, who continued to march back and forth in front of the stage, at one point using a wheeled cart to glide back and forth, waving his hand and continuing to call "No!" While it was unclear if the audience picked up his chant, they cheered and yelled even louder, many standing or waving their hands as well.

Finally, Rosa Soto-Thomas, the union’s first vice president and chair of Friday’s event,
stepped in and said under the circumstances it would be best or the governor to curtail his remarks.

"The people have spoken," she said.

Both elected officials were philosophical about the interruption, saying they understood the teachers’ frustration. At the same time, they both said they were disappointed they were unable to engage with the audience.

"They have a right to be frustrated," Russell said. "I was invited to speak, I spoke."

DeJongh said he had expected the audience to be angry, but didn’t think they would prevent him from speaking. He pointed out that, unlike other jurisdictions, there have not been any layoffs of teachers caused by budget shortfalls.

Molyneaux said later, “I don’t see why” the two government officials had been invited to speak.

"You cannot do these things to us and expect us to sit here like lambs and applaud," he said. To deJongh’s request for dialogue, Molyneaux said there had been one – contract negotiations – but the government had ignored the contract when it suited it.

The government’s action was no different from union-busting tactic employed by officials in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states, he said.

"This was done to us. Not with us, but to us," he said.

Howell said he had been surprised by the course the afternoon had taken, but would not make any other comment other than to say, "This is a democratic organization."

St. Croix Superintendent Gary Molloy, who had spoken earlier, said the incident reflected the pain, "the physical pain," that everyone is feeling during hard economic times. He added, "I wouldn’t categorize everybody by the actions of one individual."

But the crowd’s behavior did not come as a surprise to everyone in the hall. Before the session started, several teachers were heard talking about "when we shout down the governor." One even suggested the teachers should rush the stage.

One teacher after the session said he was disappointed he hadn’t been able to hear the governor. The teacher, who declined to give his name, said he wasn’t interested in "the sob story at the beginning, about what’s happening in other states," but was interested in hearing what the governor had to say about the future.

In particular, he said he had heard rumors that the governor was going to announce further, immediate pays cuts.

Asked about that later, the governor looked surprised and said his speech had absolutely nothing like that in it.

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Gov. John deJongh Jr. faced a restive audience Friday.An auditorium full of angry teachers, led by a former union official chanting "No! No! No!", shouted down Gov. John deJongh Jr. and Senate President Ronald Russell Friday morning at the St. Croix Federation of Teachers’ 32nd annual conference devoted to professional development.

The two were among a handful of speakers who had been invited to address the opening session of the conference. Some 300 or more union teachers filled the auditorium at the St. Croix Educational Complex, where the buzz of conversation made it difficult to hear the speakers in the hall, which has notoriously poor acoustics.

That crowd's buzz rose to an excited pitch when James Howell, president of the union's St. Croix local 182, took the microphone and admonished the governor – who was sitting at the dais behind him – to protect the interest of the common people instead of big companies.

Howell drew cheers when he told the teachers that their worth "is not measured by your paycheck," but by "the lives you change."

Then Senate President Russell took the podium, and the noise rose in pitch and took on a hostile edge. When he said, "Don't lose trust in your elected officials," the crowd jeered, and the remainder of his remarks were lost in shouts and catcalls.

Similarly, when deJongh began speaking it was possible to make out his early words, as he acknowledged that teachers – who had their salaries cut by eight percent earlier this year – were unhappy, but said both sides needed to keep talking, and work together to find solutions to the economic problem facing the territory.

He began talking about thousands of teachers losing their jobs in other regions hit hard by the economic slump. But when he said people need to "put aside individual needs" to work together, the audience began yelling.

At that point, Tyrone Molyneaux, former president of the local teacher's union, came striding down the aisle chanting "No! No!" and the hall exploded in cheers. DeJongh smiled in greeting at the interloper, went to the front of the stage and shook his hand.

But that didn't mollify Molyneaux, who continued to march back and forth in front of the stage, at one point using a wheeled cart to glide back and forth, waving his hand and continuing to call "No!" While it was unclear if the audience picked up his chant, they cheered and yelled even louder, many standing or waving their hands as well.

Finally, Rosa Soto-Thomas, the union's first vice president and chair of Friday's event,
stepped in and said under the circumstances it would be best or the governor to curtail his remarks.

"The people have spoken," she said.

Both elected officials were philosophical about the interruption, saying they understood the teachers’ frustration. At the same time, they both said they were disappointed they were unable to engage with the audience.

"They have a right to be frustrated," Russell said. "I was invited to speak, I spoke."

DeJongh said he had expected the audience to be angry, but didn't think they would prevent him from speaking. He pointed out that, unlike other jurisdictions, there have not been any layoffs of teachers caused by budget shortfalls.

Molyneaux said later, “I don’t see why” the two government officials had been invited to speak.

"You cannot do these things to us and expect us to sit here like lambs and applaud," he said. To deJongh's request for dialogue, Molyneaux said there had been one – contract negotiations – but the government had ignored the contract when it suited it.

The government's action was no different from union-busting tactic employed by officials in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states, he said.

"This was done to us. Not with us, but to us," he said.

Howell said he had been surprised by the course the afternoon had taken, but would not make any other comment other than to say, "This is a democratic organization."

St. Croix Superintendent Gary Molloy, who had spoken earlier, said the incident reflected the pain, "the physical pain," that everyone is feeling during hard economic times. He added, "I wouldn't categorize everybody by the actions of one individual."

But the crowd’s behavior did not come as a surprise to everyone in the hall. Before the session started, several teachers were heard talking about "when we shout down the governor." One even suggested the teachers should rush the stage.

One teacher after the session said he was disappointed he hadn't been able to hear the governor. The teacher, who declined to give his name, said he wasn't interested in "the sob story at the beginning, about what's happening in other states," but was interested in hearing what the governor had to say about the future.

In particular, he said he had heard rumors that the governor was going to announce further, immediate pays cuts.

Asked about that later, the governor looked surprised and said his speech had absolutely nothing like that in it.