Julie Aiello

FIGHTER — Julie Aiello is a kindergarten teacher at Park Side School and lead negotiator for the local teachers union, Sebastopol Elementary Teachers Association.

UPDATE: This article looks at some common threads in the teacher salary negotiations going on in several districts around west county. In the latter part of the article, it focuses on how these trends are playing out in the Sebastopol Union School District (SUSD).

The good news — for the teachers and the district — is that just after the paper went to press, SUSD settled with its teachers union. They signed a two-year contract, with a 5% increase for this year, a 4% increase for next year.

Several other districts’ contracts are still in play, including Forestville Union, whose teachers just voted to strike should the current phase of their negotiations not go their way. 

The teachers’ revolt that started in West Virginia and rolled across the country blew into west Sonoma County over the last few months — lacing salary negotiations with a mixture of hope and acrimony that’s unusual for these parts.

Last week, the West Sonoma County Union High School District and its teachers union declared that they’d reached an impasse in their negotiations. The Public Employees Relations Board (PERB) is expected to assign a mediator to their case soon.

Several elementary districts in west county are in similar straits, as teachers, angered by what they see as years of low pay, reject district offers — holding out for larger wage increases that would bring them up to the state average for teacher pay. Forestville teachers voted on April 26 to strike should their current negotion fail.

The fundamental question at stake here is how to pay middle-class public employees — like teachers and firemen — enough to allow them to live comfortably in high-cost areas like Sonoma County.

Two stumbling blocks: reserves and average teacher pay

Districts typically claim that they are paying their teachers the maximum possible. This leaves teachers digging around in the details of district budgets, looking for dollars that could have spent on teacher salaries instead of being spent elsewhere or saved as a part of the district’s reserves.

When is a reserve not a reserve?

In every case still at issue in the elementary districts in west county,teachers unions have seized onto the existence of large district “reserves” — to prove the district could and should be paying their teachers more.

Districts argue that these so-called reserves are simply year-end balances or special pots of “one-time money,” much of which are committed to paying for other expenses during the coming year.

What is average teacher pay?

In addition, there’s a debate over whether the concept of “average teacher pay” even makes sense in California, where state funding varies so widely from school to school.

Every school in California is compensated differently by the state. Wealthy districts, which are allowed by the state to pay for schools out of local property taxes, generally pay their teachers better than most. (There are about 30 of these so-called “basic aid” districts out of the 977 school districts in California.)

Most schools in California get their bulk of their money from average daily attendance (ADA): which ranges from $8,235 per student per year for grades K-3, $7,571 for grades 4-6, $7,796 for grades 7-8, and $9,269 for grades 9-12.

Districts in poor neighborhoods, where 55% or more of the students receive free or reduced lunch, get an additional boost of $3,000 per student for every poor student over that 55% mark.

Districts say their teachers’ salaries should be compared to the “average salary” of similarly sized districts with similar grade levels and similar state funding.

Teachers unions use the state average, which includes all districts and all grade levels, arguing that the highs and lows balance out.

The real cause of poor teacher pay

Underlying everything is the fact that California is ranked in bottom quartile in terms of its funding of public schools, a point district leaders never fail to point out.

Linda Irving, superintendent of Sebastopol Union School District and principal of Park Side Elementary, describes the dynamics of the current salary debate this way:

Linda Irving

CHIEF — Sebastopol Union Superintendent Linda Irving

“This is not just happening in west county. It’s all over the country. There is a movement going on, and rightfully so. Teachers should be paid more. But that also tells you something — that this isn’t merely a district issue. This is also a state and federal issue. I would like to remind people that California is 41st out of 50 in per pupil spending. We could try to address this merely as a district issue, but unless revenue is appropriated appropriately, it’s hard to take that all on at the district level.”

Teachers unions agree that the state should be more generous, but they say that another reason teacher pay lags is that districts “don’t prioritize teachers” by building teacher raises into the budget.

A bitter negotiating season

Traditionally in west county, teams of teachers have negotiated their salaries with district officials and board members. But this year, both sides have brought out the big guns — districts have lawyered up (several have hired Davis-based attorney Paul Nicholas Boylan) and local teachers unions have responded by bringing in California Teacher Association negotiators, including Erik Olsen Fernandez. This seems to have cranked up the tension even more — leaving both sides blaming “outsiders” for the breakdown of discussions.

Still, teachers are taking heart from the two west county districts which recently settled negotiations with large raises for teachers: Oak Grove School District settled on a three-year contract which raises salaries 13% over three years: 5% this year; 5% next year, 3% the year after that (plus 1% off-schedule in the first year). Gravenstein Union School District gave teachers a 12% raise over three years: 5% in the first year, 4% plus $1,500 in the second year, and 3% plus an increase in health care coverage in the third year.

It should be noted that these raises are in addition to the 2 to 4% “step and column” increases that teachers also receive each year as a part of their tenure and seniority package. Originally devised as a mechanism to raise the salaries for more experienced teachers, in recent years, these increases have been immediately devoured by the rise in the cost of living.

Sebastopol Union School District exemplifies the conflict

Sebastopol Union School District includes Park Side Elementary, Brook Haven Middle School and Castle Preschool and Childcare. The district and the local teachers union, SETA (Sebastopol Elementary Teachers Association), have been negotiating since September, and they are still far apart.

Julie Aiello, Park Side kindergarten teacher and lead negotiator for SETA, said that salaries in her district are 17% below the state average and that the union is determined to make up that gap.

“Because they don’t budget raises for teachers, they put us last and they spend all their money — their regular budget — on everything else and then they don’t have anything left for us,” she said. “We need them to start budgeting in raises for teachers so we can get up to the state average.”

Aiello said salaries are particularly low for new teachers.

“Our biggest concern is last year we had six retirements and this year we’re having four so they’re hiring new teachers and they can’t afford to live on new teacher salaries,” Aiello said. “They’re having an extremely difficult time. They’re telling me they’re paying approximately two-thirds of their salary for rent. Some of them also have student loans. So they’re living in poverty. They’re buying their clothes from secondhand stores; they can’t afford to fix their cars.”

SETA is pushing for a 16% salary increase over three years: 7% this year, 5% next year and 4% the year after that. The district is offering half that: 8.5% over three years, broken out like so: 3.5% this year, 3% next year, 2% the year after that.

Where that money is supposed to come from is a topic of hot debate. SETA is eyeing what it calls the district’s reserves, which the district and union view so differently, they might be talking about different planets.

According to the SETA bargaining team, “The district ended last year (2017-18) with 43.02% in unrestricted monies in Fund 01 and Fund 17 (what could be called reserves and are made up by components of the ending balance). They budgeted for 43.18% in these funds for this school year (2018-19). The state minimum reserves are 4% for this district and we believe they should have around 15% in unrestricted monies in these funds. Using the 2017-18 Unaudited Actuals, that would be the equivalent of $1,048,879. Instead the district ended the year with $2,992,526 in these funds. Consider that the district has more in these two funds than they spent on the entire teaching staff salaries for last year — $2,269,978.”

According to the district, however, the money in Fund 17 is made up primarily of one-time funds and should only be used for one-time expenses, not ongoing expenses like teacher salaries.

“When we get one-time funds they are put into Fund 17 (reserved for other than capital outlay) and Fund 40 (facilities) to use for one-time expenditures. These accounts roll over year to year. We use Fund 17 for one-time expenditures, like retiree incentives of $25,000, tech purchases and the like. Fund 17 ending balance is expected to be $778,337 for June 2019,” said superintendent Linda Irving.

“The beginning/ending balance is what we start the year with and end the year with, like a checking account. Revenue comes in and expenditures go out.  Some revenues are restricted to certain areas, like Federal Title I reading, and cafeteria and some are unrestricted. Some of the funds are assigned to one-time expenditures, like textbooks. Our unassigned ending fund balance for 2019-20 is expected to be $394,970 and $223,417 in ’20-21,” she said.

“The union views Fund 17 as general fund revenue and adds this to the ending balance, which they often lump together as the reserve,” Irving continued.

“Committing one-time funds to ongoing expenditures is not fiscally responsible for future students and families, especially in this time of declining enrollment for our district.”

Sebastopol Union and SETA are still negotiating, but Aiello said she feels that they will ultimately end up declaring an impasse — at which point the PERB will assign a mediator.

“I feel we’re about to hit impasse,” said Aiello. “Wednesday is our next negotiation and they’re supposed to come back and let us know how the board voted on our last offer. If they come back extremely low then we will ask to go impasse, I’m sure.”

One of many impasses in west county

Several local teachers unions and their districts are in similar straits in west county — either at impasse or beyond.

• In the Twin Hills District, the teachers union has unilaterally declared an impasse, appealing to the PERB to send in a mediator. The district has disputed the impasse declaration. The union at Twin Hills claims that their teacher salaries are 32% below the state average.

• Harmony Union School District and its teachers jointly declared that they were at an impasse in March. They are currently in mediation through PERB. Harmony Union Teachers Association (HUTA) says that their teacher salaries are 16% below the state average.

• The Forestville Teachers Association members voted unanimously on April 26 to strike if “fact-finding” fails to deliver a resolution. Fact-finding, the final step of PERB mediation process, 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.) Forestville teacher salaries are 33% below the state average for teachers.

Sonoma West will explore what’s been happening at Forestville School, Twin Hills and Harmony in Part 2 of this article.

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