strike graphic

A shot across the bow of the district before mediation begins on June 18

On May 28, the West County Teachers Association, the union that represents teachers at Analy and El Molino, took a strike vote to see how their membership felt about the West Sonoma County Union High School District’s contract offer: a two-year contract with a 0% raise this year and a 2.5% raise next year, accompanied by a lower cap on health benefits.

In response, 99% voted to strike if the high school district doesn’t offer them a better deal.

The teachers’ union is requesting a three-year contract with a 4% increase for this year, 4% next year and 4% in the year after that, with no change to their healthcare package.

“The vote is a very clear message that what is currently being offered by the district is being rejected by our membership,” Analy math teacher and union representative Brian Miller said. “They can’t continually push teachers ... At some point, we reach a breaking point.”

There are still several steps before a strike, however.

In April, the teachers union and the district jointly declared to the Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) that they’d reached an impasse, a measure of just how far apart the sides were — and still are.

They are scheduled to have their first PERB mediation on June 18.

Should that fail to produce a suitable solution, the parties then have the choice to enter “fact finding,” in which they present their case to a three-person panel, which reviews the issues and makes a recommendation. The panel is made up of one person chosen by the teachers association; one person chosen by the district; and one neutral party. If they can’t agree on the neutral person, the PERB will appoint that person.

If after fact-finding, the parties still can’t come to an agreement, the district can impose its last best offer. If the teachers don’t like it, they can choose to strike.

The meaning of a strike vote

“In west county in particular, it’s appearing like a strike is fairly certain,” said Paul Nicholas Boylan, attorney for WSCUHSD. “The teachers have made statements that they want to settle in mediation, but they’re acting like they don’t want to settle.”

He pointed to the strike vote as more evidence of the union’s desire to simply rush through mediation and fact-finding on its way to a strike.

Miller said that’s nonsense.

“Why would we not want to make a deal? So all my good friends who are struggling to make it can be on a picket line not making any money? Like we want that for our colleagues. It’s absurd,” he said.

“You take a strike vote not because you want to strike, but because you want to bargain,” he said. “You take a strike authorization vote to force the district, because it essentially creates a crisis that the district can’t ignore. Right now, they’re ignoring us. They are not bargaining. We’re not moving anywhere. By taking the strike vote, now they have to bargain.”

“We’re certainly here to make a deal,” Miller said. “I would love to come back to the membership and say, here’s the deal, and this deal clearly shows the district is prioritizing us in the budget, and I recommend a yes vote. That would be the ideal.”

The issues at hand

In a strike flyer, handed out during the vote, the West Sonoma County Teacher’s Association emphasized four main points:

• The average salary for a WSCUHSD teacher is $12,070 behind the California average teacher salary for 2017-18.

• The increasing services line item in the district’s budget is devouring money that could go to teacher salary increases. The district spends almost twice as much on services, primarily for out-of-district special education services, than most other districts in California.

• WSCUHSD spends a smaller percentage of its budget on people than most other high schools — 82% versus an average of 87% for other schools.

• Finally, the union notes that Sonoma County is one of the least affordable counties in California for teachers to live, making their relatively low salaries even more difficult to bear.

Except for the last point — on which everyone agrees — these are not uncontested claims.

Although teachers unions swear by it, the state average for teacher pay is actually a controversial measuring stick because it includes wealthier districts and metropolitan districts that have large student populations — and therefore more state funding. These types of schools pay higher teacher salaries than small rural high schools, and that bumps up the average.

Like many superintendents, WSCUHSD’s Toni Beal calls this “comparing apples to oranges.”

In this particular case, the district’s argument is somewhat undermined by the fact the state average for teachers also includes elementary school teachers who are paid significantly less than high school teachers, thus lowering the average. The average for high school teachers is much higher — almost $20,000 per year more than WSCUHSD teachers get paid.

Because of these and other complicating factors, the state average for teacher salaries is an inexact and often misleading measure. A better measure would compare salary schedules in similarly sized and similarly funded districts.

Regarding the high spending on outside services and the related lower spending on employee salaries and benefits, the school district is in the process of hiring a director of special education in order to get a handle on these costs. But this will take time.

The difference between ‘should’ and ‘can’

While Boylan is sympathetic to the financial plight of teachers, he said that WSCUHSD simply cannot afford the kind of large raise the union is asking for.

“It’s unconscionable that a state as wealthy as California funds education as poorly as it does,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean individual districts can do what the teachers unions are demanding of them. We’re looking not at what the district should do, but what it can do. The unions are arguing that ‘We should get a raise.’ We agree. But can we afford to give you a raise? That’s a different question.”

Boylan points out that WSCUHSD is facing strict spending limits, enforced by the Sonoma County Board of Education, because its budget got a “mitigated negative declaration” this year — meaning its financial outflow was higher than the inflow — as it has been for the last several years.

“We’re very certain of our budget,” Boylan said. “We’re very certain that a fact finder will agree with us that we can’t afford the raise that they’re demanding.”

The FAQ on the district’s website claims that the teacher’s union is accusing the district of lying about how much money is available for salary increases.

Miller disputes this. “I don’t think they’re lying,” he said. “I just think they’re wrong. And I think they’re wrong because they’ve been wrong again and again, underestimating, year after year, what their year-end balance will be.”

But this is more than argument over numbers. It’s about who bears the burden of a district in continual financial disarray. 

“Teachers have shouldered the crisis of the district — in the form of low pay, higher class sizes, classes that we love getting cancelled — for long enough,” Miller said. “What a strike does is take that crisis and put it directly back onto the district. Now they’re shouldering the crisis, now they know what it feels like, and now they have to move.” 

For his part, Boylan is preparing the district to withstand a strike.

“Let’s say you have a choice: to face a strike or to grant the raise that’s being demanded to avoid the strike and be in receivership in two years.  What’s your choice? You have only one choice: to survive the strike.”

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