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TAKING A PUBLIC STAND — Math teacher and lead negotiator Brian Miller (right) joined fellow teachers in a protest in downtown Sebastopol.

After six months of negotiations and amid rising tensions, the union that represents high school teachers at Analy and El Molino and the West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD) have declared that they are at an impasse.

The declaration of an impasse recognizes that the two parties’ negotiating positions are so far apart that negotiations are essentially deadlocked. Their impasse declaration was accepted by the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) last week, which means that the PERB will assign a mediator, who will bring the two sides back to the bargaining table and try to hammer out a compromise.

According to Brian Miller, a math teacher at Analy High School and lead negotiator for the West County Teachers Association, the phrase “bargaining table” may be metaphorical in this case. Because of the animosity that’s developed between the parties over the last few months, he said “It is likely that we’ll be in separate rooms, and the mediator will shuttle between us.”

Paul Nicholas Boylan, attorney for WSCUHSD, is putting a positive spin on the impasse declaration.

“I feel this is an important and very positive development,” he said. “Even though the parties still have not reached an agreement, and there is no assurance that the mediator will be able to persuade either party to modify their current positions, mediation would likely not have happened if either side insisted on continuing to negotiate despite a desire for mediation. But instead of defending a position and trying to unilaterally force the other side into mediation, the parties worked together and presented PERB with a joint request for mediation.”

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WSCUHSD  Legal Counsel Paul Nicholas Boylan, who recently joined the district negotiating team, also represents several neighboring districts in their negotations.

The district’s negotiating team includes Superintendent Toni Beal, Chief Budget Officer Mary Schafer, Director of Human Resources Mia Del Prete, plus Boylan. The West County Teachers Association team includes Miller and fellow teachers Joel Stickel, Rachel Lasek and Tricia Maxson, as well as CTA representative Erik Olson Fernandez.

Salary is the main sticking point

The main disagreement in the negotiation is over salary increases.

“The problem is that our salaries are too low,” Miller said. “They are far below the state average.”

The teacher’s association is requesting a 13% salary increase, a number they chose because it would bring them up to the 2016-17 state average for teacher pay.

At first the teacher’s union demanded the 13% increase in the first year, but later broke that up over three years, requesting a 5% increase for this year, 4% next year and 4% after the year after that.

In contrast, the district’s last salary offer was a 0% raise for this year, a 2.5% raise for next year and 0% the year after that, as well as a slightly lower benefits cap.

Miller said he considers this offer as further evidence of how the district “doesn’t prioritize teachers.”

“When you don’t prioritize teachers, this is what you get: You get a district that’s $12,000 behind the state average for teachers,” he said. “You get a district that is $18,695 behind the state high school teacher average.”

“If you look at the district’s budget for the next three years, you see that there are no salary increases scheduled in any of the years,” he said in a presentation before the school board at the last meeting on April 10. “Zero percent for teachers every year.”

“Then what happens is we go to the negotiating table, and the district says, ‘We don’t have any money.’ Well, of course you don’t have any money because you haven’t budgeted any money,” Miller said. “And the result of that is that teachers lose.”

Miller noted that the consumer price index (CPI) for the state is 3.58%. “That means we’d need a 3.58% raise in order for the buying power of our salaries not to decrease,” he said.

He also noted that the state of California gave a 3.77% cost of living adjustment (COLA) to the district in 2019.

“Of that COLA, the district offered to teachers 0% — none of it. We didn’t see a dime of that cost of living increase,” Miller said, brandishing a series of charts.

(Because of a new three-minute rule for comments at WSCUHSD board meetings, Miller gave a shortened version of his presentation. You can see full presentation at youtube.com/watch?v =7yHvUpB04LM&feature=youtu.be.)

Blood from a stone

For its part, West Sonoma County Union High School District is struggling to overcome several years of financial management in which it spent more than it brought in, year after year.

For the last eight years, the district has earned a “qualified budget status” from the Sonoma County Office of Education, which has to approve all school budgets in the county.

The phrase “qualified status” is a somewhat Orwellian term that means the opposite of what it sounds like. “Qualified status” means the county department of education will approve a district’s budget only if they can prove — through budget cuts or other means — how they will close the gap between income and outflow.

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TIGHT SPOT — Superintendent Toni Beal is leading the negotiating team for the district.

“The district is currently in a precarious financial situation that district administrative staff is working hard to remedy,” Beal said. “The county office of education recently placed the district on a ‘qualified’ status. This means that the county has determined that the district risks being unable to meet its current financial obligations and, if the situation continues, the state could place the district in receivership. The recovery plan the county has imposed on the district requires cuts and restructuring — even without considering the large raise our teachers are demanding.”

The only other districts to have “qualified budgets” eight years in a row are those perennial budget basket cases, the Oakland and Los Angeles school districts, whose teachers unions nonetheless wrung salary concessions from those districts this year.

“The district values our teachers and wants to pay them as much as reasonably possible,” Beal said. “The union demands that the district put ‘teachers first’ by agreeing to a large raise, but the district is a community with many members that have the collective purpose of serving our students. The district cannot agree to a raise that will lead to school closures, staff reductions — starting with our newest teachers first — and cuts in educational programs that our students and their parents depend on and enjoy.”

Where to get the money?

Miller called dire predictions like these “threats” — and though he said it’s not his job to find the money in the budget for teachers, he pointed out two areas of the district’s budget where the money could be found: in its skyrocketing “services” line item, which has gone up $1 million over the last two years and in the end-of-year surplus, which he said the district perennially understates.

Beal said the district’s board is attempting to get on top of its expenditures in the services category, which includes outside services for special education. Doing so requires the district to spend money in the form of a new administrator for special education — a $100,000-plus position approved at the April 10 board meeting. The goal is to bring much of the money that the district currently spends on expensive outside services for special education back into the district, which will be able, the board hopes, to provide the same or similar services for less money.

As to the year-end surplus, Beal notes that that money comes from several sources, including one-time funding sources, which should not be used for continuing obligations like teacher salaries.

“Just like anyone trying to balance their household budget, the district cannot spend one-time money to finance ongoing financial obligations. That money has to come from new, ongoing income, and that isn’t happening for the district.”

According to Beal, the crux of the teacher pay problem lies not with the district, but with the inadequate funds for education coming from the state of California.

“Despite having the sixth largest economy in the world, California sits near the bottom nationally on every single measure of school funding,” Beal said at the last board meeting. “Adjusted for the standard of living, California ranks 41st on per pupil spending and 45th on the percentage of taxable income spent on education.”

At its April 10 meeting, the district board endorsed a “full and fair funding” resolution to urged the state legislature to fund California public schools at the national average or higher by the year 2020 and at a level equal to or above the top 10 states nationally by 2025.

That, of course, does nothing for west county high school teachers in their current negotiations.

Miller agrees that the state should fund education more generously, but said that the district is ultimately at fault for the low rate of teacher pay in their district.

“All around the county, districts are addressing the problem of underfunding of teachers in Sonoma County,” Miller said.

He noted that several local district were giving raises.

“Oak Grove just granted teacher raises over three years at 5%, 5% and 3%; Mark West signed a two-year contract with 5% in the first year and 2.5% (or the COLA) in year two. Santa Rosa signed a two-year contract with a 3% raise this year, a 4% raise next year, plus increases to health care and class-size reduction. The Sonoma County Office of Education gave its employees raises at 4.5%, 4.5%, 3% over three years, with no reduction in health care.”

After listing these off, Miller acknowledged that none of these districts currently doling out raises are facing the kind of “qualified” budget dilemma currently plaguing WSCUHSD.

Still, Miller said the problem lies not merely with the district’s lack of money but its mindset.

“If you look at Mary Schafer’s PowerPoint about why the district is in this position, it points to teacher salary and benefits as the main reasons for the shortfall — as if teacher salaries, low as they are, are the problem.”

Miller points out that the percentage of the district’s budget spent on salaries and benefits — on people, in other words — has been steadily declining over the last ten years.

As a result, he said, teachers have fallen further and further behind the state average. They were $2,500 behind the state average in 2005-06. They are $12,000 behind the state average today.

The district counters that comparing district salaries to the state average is like comparing apples to oranges — a claim the union disputes. (See a longer discussion on the relevance of state averages online at sonomawest.com.) 

Board proclaims Employee Appreciation Day”

At the last district board meeting on April 10, the thing that really brought a collective cackle of disbelief from the assembled teachers was the proclamation of May 1 as Employee Appreciation Day. After the board unanimously approved this motion, many of the assembled teachers laughed out loud.

Immediately after the vote, Miller was almost speechless. Asked about it, he struggled for a few moments to compose a response.

“When we say they don’t prioritize teachers, we don’t mean that they don’t think they appreciate us or that they don’t like us. We mean that when it gets down to the budget, they don’t think about us. They put us last. And I think to make themselves feel better, they do ‘employee appreciation days,’ and we get things in our mailboxes like key chains and things like that,” he said, shaking his head.

“For me, this whole thing has been like a lesson in compartmentalization. They sit there and they hand me something that says you’re going to get a 0% raise, your health benefits are going to go down $2,000, but we really do appreciate you.

“In every district, everybody’s getting raises all around the state and so why not us?” Miller said.

Where do we go from here: PERB mediation and beyond

After talking to both parties, the PERB mediator will make a proposal to the West County Teachers Association and the school district. If one or both of the parties rejects the mediated solution, they move onto the “fact-finding” phase.

Fact-finding involves a panel of three people — one appointed by the district, one appointed by the teachers union and one neutral party. The district and the union give presentations to the panel, and the panel researches their arguments and makes a final recommendation.

“At that point, we can take it or leave it,” Miller said. “If we reject their recom­mendation, the district can impose their last best offer on us, which then we can then either accept or we strike.”

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