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WE PROTEST - Forestville teachers joined other west county teachers at a protest in downtown Sebastopol in February. Left to right, Anne Fox-3rd grade. Marni Self-2nd grade, Ryan Strauss-5/6 grade, Kim Andrews-4th grade, and Talia Kilburn-kinder.

Teachers in west county rebel over what they see as years of substandard pay

Last week, in Part 1 of this two-part series, we discussed the underlying causes of this season’s difficult teacher negotiations and looked closely at the case of Sebastopol Union School District, which reached a deal with its teachers last week. This week we’ll look at the fraught negotiations at three other west county districts: Forestville, Twin Hills and Harmony.

It’s been a tough negotiating season for west county school districts and their teachers. Several local elementary districts, including Sebastopol Union and Gravenstein, have struck deals with their teachers unions, but the negotiations were bruising, leaving hard feelings on both sides.

Other local districts still seem far from an agreement. The high school district and its teachers union declared they were at impasse two weeks ago. Two other local elementary districts, Twin Hills and Harmony, are also at impasse — an official designation recognizing that the two sides are too far apart to reach a deal without help.

When a district reaches an impasse with its union, the Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) assigns a mediator to the case. If this fails, the two sides advance to “fact-finding” — in which a panel of three people (one chosen by the district, one chosen by the union and one neutral party) listen to presentations by the union and the district, research the issues and the pronounce their opinion.

Similar issues at all three districts

The same issues are at play in all three of these elementary districts: the teachers unions are arguing that their teachers’ salaries are far below the state average and that their districts are hoarding unreasonably large reserves that could be used to increase teacher pay.

The districts say that the state average is an unfair comparison that doesn’t reflect the funding reality of small rural schools like those in west county. Districts also claim that the teachers unions are conflating “reserves” with the “year-end balance,” much of which is made up of one-time monies that they say shouldn’t be spent on ongoing expenses like teacher salaries.

Twin Hills and Harmony in mediation

Both Twin Hills and Harmony are in the mediation phase, although Twin Hills has not yet been assigned a mediator. According to their unions, Twin Hills’ salaries are 32% below the state average for teacher salaries, while Harmony is 16% below the average.

Twin Hills School District

According to Twin Hills Superintendent Barbara Bickford, the district is offering a two-year contract with a 3% increase on the salary schedule and a 1% off-schedule bonus payment in year one, followed by another 3% increase on the salary schedule in year two.

The Twin Hills teacher’s union is asking for a three-year agreement with 7% on schedule for 2018-19, 7% on schedule for 2019-20 and 6% on schedule for 2020-21.

“We realize that making competitive pay a priority means making other changes to the budget, but the district has been able to increase other items when needed. For example when our current superintendent was hired, they increased the salary so that they were able to offer a competitive salary to the superintendent,” Twin Hills teacher’s union representative Leslie Konvalinka said.

“We know that if the district made competitive teacher salaries a priority we could work together to make this happen just like we used to work together to make budget cuts when times were tough,” she said.

Harmony Union School District

According to Mariah Morris of Harmony School, “Harmony Union Teachers Association is advocating for our district to close the salary gap between our current average salary and the state average and in doing so, keep up with the ever increasing cost of living in this area. We bargained for a good health care package a few years ago, and are grateful that Harmony Union School District has prioritized the health of its staff and their families.”

The district’s most recent offer is a three-year contract with 2% increase on schedule for the first year, followed with two years of 7% bonuses.

The union is asking for 7% on schedule for 2018-19; 5% on schedule for 2019-20; 5% on schedule for 2020-21.

“With our push to change the lens to look at state vs. county comparisons, there has been an added discomfort with bargaining this year,” Morris said. “Our district has had to look beyond where HUSD ranks locally. No doubt it has been challenging for our administration and board to go from feeling like teachers were compensated well, to the uncomfortable reality of how low our teacher salaries really are. This acknowledgement has been, and continues to be, a slow transition.”

Harmony superintendent Renee McBride did not respond to our inquiry for a comment on this story.

At the breaking point in Forestville

“The main sticking point in our contract negotiations has definitely been salary,” said teacher Ryan Strauss, lead negotiator for the Forestville Teachers Association (FTA), the local union. “Even though our health benefits are also a huge issue for us, we have decided to concentrate on salary because of how amazingly low our salaries are compared to the statewide average.”

Strauss said that statewide figures from the California Department of Education show the teacher average salary as $79,128.

“The average teacher salary at Forestville School is $59,595,” Strauss said. “That is a difference of $19,533, or 33%.”

“Our teachers union is asking for a 33% increase in order for us to reach the average teacher salary in California. We are only asking that we be paid the average teacher salary for the state of California, even though we work and live in a county with an above average cost of living.”

Forestville Superintendent Phyllis Parisi said she was taken aback by the size of the union’s demand.

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Superintendent Phyllis Parisi

“They initially said — verbally — that their interest was about a 5% increase. When we came back to the table, they had changed their CTA rep so therefore they got different advice and information, and they started using the state average for teacher salaries.”

Objecting to the use of the state average

Parisi has several objections to the use of the statewide average as a comparison point for salaries at Forestville School.

“It’s an apples and oranges comparison,” she said, noting that the statewide average salary combines several factors which make it skew on the high side. High school salaries, which are higher, are combined with elementary school salaries; small schools, which pay teachers significantly less, are combined with larger schools, who because of their higher average daily attendance, can afford to pay more.

“There’s a big difference between large school districts and small districts. If you look at small school districts with an ADA of less than 1,000 on the CDE website, those average salaries come out like $65,926,” she said.

In addition, she said, the state average doesn’t take into account the age of the staff. She said that statewide, most teachers are older and have been teaching for many years (and are thus more highly paid), which makes the average even higher. The majority of her staff, she said, is young and relatively new to teaching.

The negotiations

In response to the union’s 33% request, the district offered the union a 0% raise, which infuriated teachers, in part because it was delivered by the district’s lawyer, not the district’s bargaining team.

After mediation though, the district upped that to the following: a $3,250 bonus in year one, a 2.5% raise in year two; and a 2.5% raise in year three. In addition, the offer included a small increase in workdays (which the district interpreted as a raise), and a reduction in the number of wage freezes (years where there is no increase) on the salary schedule. In the district’s interpretation, this adds up to a 4% increase in year one, a 4% increase in year two, and a 3% increase in year three.

Ryan Strauss is not buying it. Here’s his analysis of their offer:

“For 2018-19, they use phrases like ‘is equivalent to a 4% increase’ because it isn't a raise. It is a one-time cash pay out (off schedule) that does not affect the salary schedule. So their offer has a 0% increase to the salary schedule in the first year, has no retroactive component, and does nothing to bring our teachers closer to the state average.

“For 2019-20, the offer reduces freezes in certain steps on the salary schedule. This just means they eliminate a few of the places on the schedule where salaries don’t increase from year to year. This does not increase every teachers’ salary by 1%. That 1% would affect only a few of our teachers.

Forestville Teachers Association

TAKING IT TO THE  MAT - Forestville Teachers Association negotiating team. From left to right: Anne Fox, bargaining co-chair; Gina Graziano, union president/music teacher; Talia Kilburn; Ryan Strauss, bargaining co-chair. (Not pictured is Chelsea Ehrlich, bargaining alternate.)

“They also offer adding one work day to the year as a 0.5% raise. That is working an extra day, not increasing pay for teachers. It is increasing the teachers’ workload and paying them the same rate for that work. We don’t consider that to be the same as a 0.5% raise. They do offer a 2.5% offer for ’19-20, which would apply to the salary schedule. So that’s only 2.5% to all teachers so far in their offer.

“For 2020-21 the offer again increases our workload without increasing our rate of pay and calls it a 0.5% raise. They do offer another 2.5% raise to the salary schedule that would effect all teachers, which is slightly more than zero.”

“So that’s only 5% that would apply to our salary schedule and all of our teachers,” he said.

Finally, according to Ryan, the district’s new proposals would keep “new hires from participating in a retirement program that has been in our contract for years. We can’t agree to that.”

The teachers union has  softened its salary demand, however. According to Ryan, as of May 8, the FTA was asking for “increases to the salary schedule of 7% for 2018-19, 6% for 2019-20, and 5% for 2020-21.”

In a statement from the union, kindergarten teacher and FTA bargaining team member Talia Kilburn said their members are prepared to strike to get what they believe they deserve.

“If our negotiations don’t work out, then we strike,” Kilburn said.

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