Teachers, superintendent speak out on busted contract deal
The head of Alameda’s teacher’s union is casting teachers’ decisive rejection of a tentative contract agreement as a referendum on the administration of Superintendent Kirsten Vital, while Vital is questioning why the union’s leaders would present the deal only to dismiss it as “inferior” after teachers voted it down.
“What this all boils down to is an issue of trust,” Alameda Education Association president Gray Harris wrote in a community letter explaining last week’s vote, the teachers’ first no vote on an agreement in local educators’ memory. “The teachers do not trust this administration and they do not like the direction our district is heading.”
Teachers who spoke to the Project last week cast the vote as a sign of their frustration with what they see as a lack of respect for their work, in the form of both the district’s spending priorities and policies that some said put too much power into the hands of administrators. One teacher said others are afraid to speak out against Vital for fear of retribution, while Vital said teachers who support her are afraid to speak out because they fear retribution from union leaders.
“I have supported (Vital’s) since she got here. But something’s gone wrong. And it’s got to be fixed,” said Heather Figueroa, a teacher at Ruby Bridges Elementary School. Figueroa said she doesn’t hold any one person responsible for the problems.
Vital said she’s offering the best deal she can during tough fiscal times and that under the tentative deal, salary and benefits could have been discussed again in December, after a November vote on taxes to fund education. And she said some of the district’s big spending decisions this year were prompted by parents and teachers.
“We are trying to do the best we can with the resources that we have. I think that tentative agreement demonstrates our willingness to do that,” said Vital of the deal, which district administrators said would have saved Alameda Unified a projected $586,370 through 2014. “I understand there are folks who believe it is not enough. It’s the best we can do right now.”
Union leaders have questioned why the district can’t put some of its reserves – an amount district administrators have placed at $12.8 million and union leaders, $17.5 million – into the pockets of teachers, though Vital has said the district needs the money to cover its bills due to delays in state funding.
The rejection of the agreement is the latest salvo in a heated contract war between teachers and district leaders ignited by the Board of Education’s approval in August of a new contract that gave Vital an annual 3 percent raise, full medical benefits and performance bonuses. Teachers get semiannual raises based on years of service and education, though they have complained that rising medical costs – which weren’t addressed by the deal – have eroded their salaries.
Union leaders – who handed Vital a stocking full of coal before Christmas to protest what they saw as a lack of progress in salary negotiations – asked for 3 percent raises and full medical coverage, a proposal district leaders rejected as too costly. Union leaders also asked the district to lower class sizes in kindergarten through third grade back to 20 students per teacher, something Harris said Vital told teachers she wanted to do over time. District administrators asked the state to declare an impasse over the class size issue, sending it into mediation.
The deal teachers rejected would have kept K-3 class sizes at 25 students per teacher unless the district faced a severe fiscal emergency, in which case the school board could raise class sizes to 32 students per teacher. It also offered teachers a 1 percent bonus this year, which the union said would be between $398 and $799 per teacher, and a 1.5 percent pay raise for 2012-2013 which could be extended if state funding reached a specified level.
Harris said that after failing to reach an agreement on class size and pay with the mediator, the union contacted a second mediator in an effort to settle those issues. But she said district officials showed up with a contract agreement that included collaboration, academic freedom and other issues the union hadn’t planned to discuss.
Because the issues were being discussed during the mediation process – instead of at the bargaining table – the union’s bargaining team was unable to check in with teachers to see how they felt about the provisions being discussed prior to the vote, she said.
“When the teachers did finally see the length of AUSD's demands, they decided that they could not accept the contract. The vote was a clear majority, with nearly three ‘no’ votes to every one ‘yes’ vote,” Harris wrote.
Harris couldn’t say how many of the union’s 524 members voted on the contract when a reporter asked.
In an interview, Harris said she felt the agreement was the best union negotiators could get and that she didn’t expect it to be voted down, though she said she knew elements of the agreement would be “hard to explain to the teachers.” Teachers present at a general meeting where voting took place a week and a half ago said Harris didn’t offer a recommendation on how they should vote on the contract deal, though they said reps with the California Teachers Association, the state teachers union, urged them to accept the deal (Harris said the state union supports the teachers’ vote).
A press release issued by the AEA and CTA after the vote called the agreement “inferior,” though Harris said that the release was a reflection of how teachers felt about the agreement.
Harris and teachers who spoke with a reporter said they don’t want to go on strike. But she accused the district of being unwilling to negotiate.
“I’m always hoping for an agreement,” Harris said.
Vital, who said she personally participated in the negotiations, said she was disappointed in the vote and that she wants to know why the union signed an agreement their membership wouldn’t approve. She said she understands teachers’ frustration, but that Sacramento, and not she or the school board, is the enemy.
“These are not popular recommendations that I’m making. But I have to keep this district fiscally sound,” Vital said. District officials have said the state will hold on to close to 40 percent of the money they have allocated for Alameda Unified this year until after the school year is over. A majority of the district’s budget is funded by the state.
Vital said the class size issue will continue to be addressed through mediation, while other issues will be discussed at the bargaining table. She said mediation rules allowed the two tracks to be joined in order to achieve a resolution.
“In any case, we will continue to move forward positively and respectfully on those two tracks of negotiations, always striving to compromise and reach agreement,” she wrote.
If the contract lapses without a successor in June, its mandates remain in effect until a new agreement is reached – or until the school board allows district administrators to impose their final contract offer after a fact-finding report is released through the mediation process, Harris and Vital said.
In addition to pay and class sizes, the agreement contained language allowing teachers to supplement standard teaching materials with others of their own choosing, establishing a collaboration pilot, exempting magnet and innovative school programs from seniority requirements and setting rules for the handling of complaints against teachers.
Teachers said the money offered by the district doesn’t cover the financial hit they suffered when they took five unpaid furlough days last year, or the erosion of their salaries caused by rising health care costs, though some said money wasn’t the issue guiding their vote. And one of the teachers interviewed by a reporter questioned how district administrators would implement language on complaints and other language that eliminates the need to consider seniority when staffing magnets and schools with innovative programs in place.
“They wanted validation for what they’re already doing that’s breaking the contract they already have. And they’re throwing in money as a means of bribing us,” Alameda High School math teacher Michael Lamb said.
Harris said district leaders are required to follow existing practices like one established for setting the annual school calendar but that they haven’t. She said the district’s failure to follow past practices led to teachers filing 38 grievances against the district during Vital’s reign as superintendent – compared to six in the three years prior to her taking the job.
“In the years since she was hired by the school board, our contract has been reinterpreted, and misinterpreted with a disregard of past practice,” Harris wrote in her community letter.
Teachers said they feel the district has applied its funding concerns to them only, citing Vital’s contract agreement and the district’s decision to spend money on magnets and innovative programs instead of smaller class sizes.
“The district wasn’t out there pounding the pavement. We were,” Figueroa said of efforts to pass Measure A. “We did all the work to get that done. And we’re not enjoying the benefits of that.”
Figueroa said there are other nonmonetary things district leaders could do to show they value their teachers, like making it easier for teachers’ children to attend school here.
Administrators have said that about two-thirds of the $12.2 million generated by Measure A is being spent on maintaining teachers’ existing salaries and keeping K-3 class size at 25 students per teacher, and Vital said the parcel tax has shielded Alameda Unified from layoffs, furloughs and other cuts neighboring districts are making. Class sizes are “complicated” by uncertainty around state funding for the program, Vital said. And she said teachers brought her the idea for magnets and innovative programs.
Vital said the district bargained with the union in good faith and denied claims that the district hasn’t followed past practice. And she questioned claims that she hasn’t respected teachers.
Besides the calendar issue and another raised by a reporter, “I haven’t heard the specifics of what this means. I’m willing to have a conversation (about) what does that mean, disrespect,” Vital said.