District’s latest offer angers teachers | TahoeDailyTribune.com

District’s latest offer angers teachers

Mary Thompson

Teacher salary negotiations continue in the Lake Tahoe Unified School District but the president of the South Tahoe Educators’ Association said the issue is still dead in the water.

“We met all day (last) Thursday, the district made a new proposal but there was no movement,” Mike Patterson said.

According to Patterson, the district’s proposal – which the union rejected – offered the 296 teachers, whose contracts expired in July 1998, a 4-percent retroactive salary increase to January 1999 and a 2-percent increase for this year. He said the proposal also called for a cut in pay for coaches, department heads and mentor teachers.

“They are not even offering us what the state is giving the district in (cost of living allowances),” Patterson said.

According to Joe White, LTUSD chief financial officer, last year the state issued about a 3.25-percent COLA – cost of living allowance.

Superintendent Rich Alexander said he could not comment on the specifics of negotiations.

“The mediator asked us to keep things confidential,” he said. “I can’t talk about any offers … the next meeting with the mediator is scheduled for Oct. 25.”

He did say, however, the district is responsible for paying “step and column” costs before awarding any raises that the teachers are seeking. Step and column is a schedule that allows teachers to advance in salary for seniority and additional education and training.

Movement in the salary schedule for step and column equates to about a $274,000 annual cost for the district. Typically, money allocated by the state to the district for student enrollment covers the cost of the step and column. In times of decreasing enrollment, such as this year where the initial count is down by four students in LTUSD but is projected to total 46 by the end of the year, the district must look at other sources of revenue to fund the movement on the salary schedule, according to Alexander.

“We have a contractual obligation to meet the step and column costs,” he said. “We have to take about 2 percent from COLA just to cover those costs.”

Patterson said step and column shouldn’t be funded with COLA money.

“The district knows what the step and column will be every year and they should plan for that in the budget,” he said. “It is absolutely ludicrous to pay for that out of COLA.”

The teachers are seeking a salary increase that will bring them to the top one-third of the comparables list – a comparison of 21 California school districts of similar size and state funding received. The comparables list, provided by School Services, Inc., of Sacramento, is agreed on by both sides in the collective bargaining process.

Currently, LTUSD teacher’s salaries rank second to last on the comparables list in the category of beginning teachers’ salary paid at $25,945 per year and top salary paid at $51,043 for a teacher with a master’s degree and 21 years of experience in the district. Alexander said both sides agreed that negotiations would be based on the 30-year earnings comparison in which the LTUSD teachers rank 11th on the comparables list.

Patterson said the district agreed during good faith bargaining sessions held in January 1999 to move the teachers into the top third of the comparables list over a three-year timeline. He said, since then, the district has reneged on its portion of the agreement.

Superintendent Alexander denies an agreement was ever reached.

“There are no agreements,” he said. “That’s why we are in mediation.”

Patterson said the proposal they sent to the district in Thursday’s meeting asked for a 5.99-percent retroactive increase for the teachers to January 1999 and about an 8-percent increase for this year.

Alexander said every 1-percent increase to teachers’ salaries amounts to a cost to the district of $137,000. Under these terms the above proposal would cost the district slightly more than $1.5 million.

Patterson said the Educators’ Association expects to hear the district’s response to their proposal at the next mediation meeting scheduled for Oct. 25.

In the meantime, the teachers are using public comment sessions at LTUSD Board of Education meetings to communicate their feelings about the way the negotiation process is going.

Three of the last school board meetings have been attended by more than 75 LTUSD teachers, each wearing their signature black T-shirts that read, “It’s time for a change.”

Tuesday’s board meeting had to be moved from the district office to the multi-purpose room at Sierra House School to accommodate the crowd of more than 100 teachers.

Some, such as Bijou Community School teacher Leo Finzi, held signs that read, “Elect new board members this November.”

“We’re showing our disgust for the way the negotiation process is going,” he said. “The actions of the current board have led to distractions that take away from the focus on providing the best education for our kids.”

South Tahoe Middle School teacher Pam Fritz spoke to the board on behalf of the teachers.

“The salaries of the LTUSD teachers have fallen considerably behind in the comparables list,” she said. “It’s time to honor the agreement – we want what’s right, not what’s left.”

Alexander said Wednesday, despite the large turnout at the last three school board meetings, the district is planning to continue to hold the meetings at the district office board room.

“We’ll continue to hold meetings in the board room, unless it’s necessary to move,” he said.

Patterson said the teachers are ready to go to the next step in the negotiations process – fact finding.

“We don’t think the district will come up with anything in mediation that we’ll accept,” he said. “Maybe we’re wrong. I hope we are wrong.”

Patterson said fact finding, a hearing process where a neutral chair appointed by the Public Employment Relations Board hears both sides of the case and makes a decision, is set forth by the mediator.

If fact finding doesn’t work, the teachers could strike.

“After fact finding, that may be our only option,” Patterson said.

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