May 6, 2005

Teacher strike unlikely, but possible

By Kelley Dupuis

With teachers in the Grossmont High School District last week looking at the possibility of a strike, teachers in the Chula Vista Elementary School District might be facing a similar tough choice.

However, a spokeswoman for Chula Vista Educators (CVE), the elementary teachers’ union, said this week that any possible strike would only occur later in the year.

CVE is expecting to receive the results of a recent advisory vote among its members today, May 6. That vote is expected to give the union direction on which way to go—should the union continue to negotiate or not?

“Typically what happens is the bargaining teams reach a tentative agreement and that according to union bylaws is sent out for ratification vote. In this case, we do not have a tentative agreement,” said CVE chief negotiator Tim O’Neill. “We need to get some clearer direction from our membership as to whether or not they want to get more actively involved and demonstrate their anger at the school board’s proposal, or whether they want this district proposal to be put to them for a formal ratification vote.”

O’Neill said that if the teachers decide not to go for a tentative agreement that they can vote on, then the public might well see more picketing at school sites, fewer teachers participating in after-school activities on their own time, and more informational meetings with parents to explain why they’re angry with the district.

Teachers in the Chula Vista Elementary School District have been working under an unsettled contract since 2003.

Chief among bones of contention are health benefits and transfer policies. At the last mediation meeting between the two sides, which took place April 20, the district stood by the position it took at the last mediation session in February, which calls for no changes in contract language regarding transfers or hours, no increase in a benefits cap through the 2005-2006 school year, and no salary increase.

The district is, however, proposing a new anniversary increment of two percent per year for teachers at and above 31 years’ experience.

Health care is a key issue. The school board has declined to increase the benefits cap for teachers, which means that teachers who insure dependents will pay between $252 and $622 per month for medical insurance.

CVE president Gina Boyd on Monday said that a strike “could happen,” but doesn’t think a lot of teachers understand what that might entail.

“A lot of people are saying ‘strike,’ but they don’t know the ramifications,” Boyd said. “We would have to go to fact finding, which would take three months, and the findings of a fact finder are not binding. The district could then unilaterally impose their last, worst proposal, then maybe it would be six months before teachers could legally strike.”

School board trustee Cheryl Cox said she would like to give the teachers more of what they want, but first wants to wait and see what happens with a proposal from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to turn the responsibility for teacher retirements over to local school districts.

“If there was a funding source for that we could say let’s figure out how we’re going to do it,” Cox said. “If you can’t pay today’s teacher’s salaries, you’re not going to be able to pay today’s teacher’s salaries and the retirees. None of us wants to be in the situation of the City of San Diego, where you have retirement costs that you just can’t afford. We have told the teachers we would love to be able to pay them more, but you have to find a money source for that.”

Cox also said that she does not see any way the district could manage to raise its cap on fringe benefits from its current level of $7,510 per year.

“Teachers would like us to move that cap up, because the cost of health care has gone up, and we’ve said the days may have gone by where we can afford to pay everybody for the health care they want for their entire family,” she said.

The teachers’ union has counter-argued that the school board, while refusing to budge on pay increases, benefits or changes in policies on hours and transfers, has nevertheless OK’d significant salary increases for Superintendent Lowell Billings.

The district has proposed a three percent salary increase for teachers in 2005-2006, but at the same time has proposed to increase Billings’ salary 3.5 percent in 2005-2006, and then give the superintendent four percent increases each year thereafter. By 2009, the superintendent’s paycheck could swell from the $179,384 it is this year, to $208,846.

Still, Cox stressed that it is her desire to make teachers feel that they are valued. She hopes that the district’s proposal to push step increases beyond 26 years, where they currently end, will send that message.

“If you were a teacher for 26 years you could get a longevity step, but there was nothing beyond 26,” she said. “We’ve said let’s put a step in there at 31. At least our senior teachers now who haven’t gotten step increases in years, we’re offering them a step at 31, which we hope sends them the message that they are valued.”

Cox said it pains her to see teachers feeling so badly about their compensation and benefit levels, but insisted that the district’s current offer is “the best we can do.”

District parent and former school board candidate Jill Galvez isn’t so sure. She thinks if the district took a hard look at places where it could cut costs, it just might find that it can give teachers a better offer in terms of pay and benefits.

“What I’d like to see happen next is for the distrrict to put more effort into cutting cvosts in other areas,” Galvez said. “For example, they put out glossy publications and they’re still sending administrators to conferences. I’d like to see more of an effort and more inclusion amongst the school sites to help identify where budgets could be reduced.”

Galvez wants to see the school board and the district engage the help of parents, teachers and administrators to identify areas where there might be wasteful spending.

Galvez did not pass up the opportunity to take a pot-shot at Patrick Judd, the incumbent trustee who was her opponent in last fall’s balloting.

“School board member Patrick Judd received over $30,000 in contributions from contractors last year,” she said. “Maybe we should take a look at why the school construction contractors could afford an extra $30,000 of non-tax-deductible expenses to donate to a school board campaign. Are we overpaying school construction contracts?”

We left several phone messages this past week with Hispanic representative on the School Board Bertha Lopez for her opinion on this issue but she failed to return our calls.

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