OAKHURST — Negotiations between a small, local school district and its teachers union have led to impasse between the two groups, and mediation will take place next week.
While the Bass Lake Joint Union School District (BLSD) and the Bass Lake Teachers Association (BLTA) have agreed on many points as they negotiate their current contract, there are two major issues yet to be worked out – a one percent difference in teacher salaries, and what is perceived by some to be district reserves in excess of what is needed.
The District has agreed to a four percent raise for teachers for the school year ending next month; the teachers union is requesting a five percent raise.
Contract negotiations began informally in the summer of 2015, intensifying when school began in August. But in April, the organizations mutually declared what is known in negotiations as impasse. The next step is mediation.
“The District and the teachers have agreed on several contractual issues,” says Bass Lake District Superintendent Glenn Reid.
“We have not agreed on the salary portion of the negotiations. We have made what we feel is a very fair offer to the teachers. They have stipulated that they want an additional three percent for next year and, at this point, the district does not feel comfortable agreeing to that.”
Teachers in the district received an increase in payments to their health benefits during the 2014-15 school year, and a wage increase for the 2013-14 school year. Now, contract issues are close to resolution, but not close enough.
“We are asking for a 5 percent raise and they are off one percent,” explains Tim McGrew, an Oak Creek Intermediate School 7th grade teacher who is lead negotiator for the 44 teachers in BLTA. “We came down to 5 percent and they came up to 4 percent. We have been negotiating in good faith and, presently, we are at impasse and have a mediator meeting scheduled for May 24. We are unwilling to move off the 5 percent for one major reason, which is that the Ed Code calls for elementary schools to spend 60 percent of the budget on teacher and aides salaries and benefits, and the District has been filing for a waiver for the last five years in order to avoid doing so. The District has been spending less than we should have by over $900,000 during that time.”
California Education Code Section 41372 says, in part, that “There shall be expended during each fiscal year for payment of salaries of classroom teachers: (1) By an elementary school district, 60 percent of the district’s current expense of education.” Read more of Ed Code Section 41372 here.
McGrew points out that, over the past five years, the District has repeatedly filed for a waiver known as an Application for Exemption from the Required Expenditures for Classroom Teachers’ Salaries pursuant to Ed Code Section 41372.
“They are legally not spending as much as the Ed Code says. We want the board to quit filing for this waiver and start spending the mandatory 60 percent,” explains McGrew. “The District has stated in negotiations that they will not stop filing for the exemption, and that they are going to continue to file for the waiver for the foreseeable future.”
District Superintendent Glenn Reid says the issue of the waiver is extremely complicated.
“The waiver process is there for a reason. The 60 percent is compared to the District’s entire budget. Many things that we are required to have in place, and that we pay for, do not count towards the 60 percent. The 60 percent is for teachers’ and aides’ salaries alone. It does not take into account the need for a school secretary, a bus driver, a custodian, a principal, yard supervisors, books, computers, software programs, internet access, substitute teachers, professional development and training of teachers, school buses, supplies, utilities, music programs, sports programs, counselors, school psychologists, school nurses, technology coaches – and the list goes on.”
Reid adds that every time the District spends a dollar on something other than a teacher or aide salary, that 60 percent becomes more difficult to achieve.
“The long list of expenses just cited are necessary to run a school district, but they do not count towards the 60 percent and some are required by law. There are nine school districts in Madera County. Five of them currently do not meet this requirement. Over 40 percent of the elementary districts in the state do not meet it, and this number is growing.”
Over the last two budget years, Reid says, Governor Brown has elected to give money to California school districts on a one-time basis.
“This is not money that can be used for salaries, as you only get it once.”
The Union contends that the District could afford the extra one percent they’re asking for by spending that full 60 percent and decreasing its percentage of budget reserves.
“The money they are not spending is on average a little less than $200,000 annually and a one percent increase in salaries would amount to about $32,000,” McGrew states. “The rest of the money for which they’ve been filing a waiver could be spent on more aides or teachers.”
The waiver was originally filed by the District five years ago, says McGrew, at a time when the economic outlook was bleak.
“It was the start of the economic downturn, and they did it to save money. They let go of classroom aides, which may have been fiscally prudent. At that point it became true that they were spending less than the 60 percent, so they filed for the waiver.”
Now, says McGrew, times are not as tight, and teacher workloads have increased since the Common Core standards were implemented over the last few years.
“We have the money to spend to hire back the aides and get more teachers to reduce class sizes. That’s what we’d like the District to do.”
Also at issue is the amount of reserve the District says it needs set aside for emergencies. The State requires the District to have a four percent reserve.
“The average reserve for an elementary school district in the state of California is over 18 percent,” says Superintendent Reid. “As we have seen in the past, our state has been more than willing to tell its schools that they didn’t have the money they are required to pay them, so they will pay them later. As a school district, we do not have that luxury. Our employees need to be paid. Our power bills need to be paid. Our school buses need fuel.”
Reid explains that the monthly operating costs of the District are approximately $700,000 including salaries and expenses.
“Just like many families try to do, we believe that it is prudent to have two months of operating costs in reserve. Our reserve levels have been declining over the past years because we are spending more money each year than we are taking in from the State. If we had only a four percent reserve, we would have months in the school year where we would not be able to make payroll, as we receive the bulk of our funding through property taxes in April and December. Without reserves, we would face some shortfalls in the months preceding these two months.”
The Union suggests that three times the mandated amount, or 12 percent reserves, would be more reasonable.
“We have a 22 percent reserve right now, which is huge,” McGrew adds. “The Board’s contention is that we need to be fiscally prudent and financially responsible, and the teachers agree with that. However, the Board says that we are saving for bad times. The problem is, we just had the worst time most of us have seen. We were taking furlough days, and yet our reserves went up.”
It’s not the Union’s job to determine how much the Board should hold in reserve. It is the responsibility of the Board to make that judgment, and the Board answers to the community it serves.
“It is not our contention as BLTA that the Board doesn’t want to serve the community or the students. We know they do. We think they are being too conservative fiscally and we want them to spend the money the law says they are supposed to spend. We have had rainy days and they didn’t spend the money. They let aides go and reserves went up. They didn’t use it as a rainy day fund, they just held onto the money even in really bad times.”
The most recent regular board meeting of the BLUSD was standing room only as parents took the opportunity to comment on the issues at hand, and the Board confirmed at meeting’s end that they are headed to mediation.
“We all want what’s best for our kids,” says Bass Lake resident Paula Trappen, who has two children in second grade at Wasuma Elementary School in Ahwahnee.
“My argument is that most of our teachers have no classroom aides and, instead, we’re relying on parent volunteers who are trying to do the jobs that professionals should do. It’s key that our children learn to read well, for instance, and one teacher cannot do that in a classroom of 27 kids without a certified classroom aide. We are stretching our teachers too thin, and working them to the max, and we are not compensating them properly.”
Trappen says that parents who are concerned can contact the Board of Trustees of the BLUSD.
“I would love for parents to email the Board and let them know that they care that our teachers are being paid adequately and we want to get some aides back in the classrooms.”
McGrew agrees that parents must be in the loop.
“We want to let the parents know and then allow them to act if they aren’t comfortable with what’s happening,” McGrew summarizes. “Our issue is that we have plenty of money in the bank and we should be spending it on the students through teachers and aides right now.”
The state mediator will bring the parties together for a final shot at breaking the impasse. If mediation fails, the mediator then certifies the parties for the next step, known as fact finding.
Despite their current and ideally temporary inability to agree on the issue of salaries, the 60 percent waiver, and the subject of reserves, the District and the teachers appear to exhibit mutual respect as negotiations continue.
“We have outstanding teachers in our district,” affirms Superintendent Reid. “They do wonderful things with our students, and they are well supported by the District in their efforts to do so. The District has no desire to prolong negotiations and we are hopeful that we can reach agreement at mediation on Tuesday.”