Modesto teachers to meet as vote looms on split from statewide union

naustin@modbee.comApril 15, 2014 

  • BETTER TO BE A TEACHER

    Comparison of retirement for individuals who retire earning $76, 383, the average Modesto City Schools teacher’s salary in 2012-13, shows California State Teachers Retirement System benefits are more than twice as much as Social Security benefits, seven years sooner. Plus, the CalSTRS system uses current salary, while Social Security averages lifetime earnings, using the 35 highest earning years.

    CalSTRS PENSION: $55,000 a year

    SALARY: $76,383 for a single year

    YEARS ON JOB: 30

    AGE: Maximum credit at 63

    SOCIAL SECURITY PENSION: $25,699 a year

    SALARY: $76,383 averaged over 35 years

    AGE: Maximum credit at 70

Teachers will gather Wednesday for one last discussion with Modesto Teachers Association management before a pivotal vote May 6 on whether to split from the statewide union. In the run-up to balloting, teachers say tensions are rising, and a legal filing by the California Teachers Association accuses Modesto City Schools of meddling in the fight.

The MTA leadership proposed leaving its state affiliate after CTA found the local was out of compliance in spending a $280,000 annual grant. The local has received the grant through the CTA for decades to pay for office staff: a full-time executive director and a secretary.

Here’s the hitch: The MTA does not directly employ its executive director. Instead, for 22 years, it has paid the Modesto district to keep a former teacher on its payroll. The arrangement has allowed the individual to continue to accrue retirement credit under the California State Teachers Retirement System, better known as CalSTRS. For 22 years, the local has thereby violated the conditions of the grant, according to the CTA.

The practice also may violate CalSTRS regulations regarding so-called creditable service – what counts as a teaching job toward retirement benefits.

“The Education Code (EC 22711) allows (that) individuals elected to serve as an officer of an employee organization can receive service credit for that time,” CalSTERS media relations manager Michael Sicilia said via email. That would apply to MTA President Doug Burton, who is on full-time paid leave for union service. But Executive Director Megan Gowans is a union staffer, not an elected officer. Sicilia, reached later by phone, declined to address the discrepancy, saying the provided statutes would be the agency’s only comment.

Gowans did not respond to requests for comment by The Modesto Bee on Tuesday. Burton responded by email to questions about MTA financial matters only. Modesto teachers contacted The Bee but refused to comment on the record, saying they feared reprisals and conflict on campus.

At stake for Gowans, 58, is a sizable chunk of retirement income. CalSTERS benefits are far more generous than what those relying on Social Security can hope to take to the bank. Some 950 Modesto City Schools retirees receive $82 million total in CalSTRS benefits each year, according to public records. Some 136 of those retirees get more than $78,371, the average pay for a working Modesto City Schools teacher in 2012-13.

At stake for Modesto teachers, however, is representation and expertise, CTA says in posts on the MTA Teachers for CTA Facebook page, which was started April 8. “You don’t have to look far to know that as educators, our profession is facing real challenges in today’s world,” says one letter, noting court and legislative challenges pending on teacher job securities, pension financing and evaluations.

CTA is a major player in California politics, representing 305,000 teachers and administrators in a state employing 300,000 teachers. Its national affiliate, the National Education Association, boasts 3.2 million members. The next largest, the American Federation of Teachers, has about one-third as many members. In this area, teachers in Turlock Unified, Ceres Unified, Oakdale Unified, Patterson Unified, Hughson Unified and Sylvan Union districts are among those associated with CTA.

“I can tell you that we would be in deep trouble if we didn’t belong to CTA,” said Turlock Teachers Association President Julie Shipman. “TTA buys out one period of my schedule for me to do union business. The rest of the day, I am a teacher, not a legal expert, an HR person or anything else.”

That sentiment was echoed by Denair Unified Teachers Association President Barry Cole, a recent veteran of the Denair district’s 18-month struggle against bankruptcy and the risk of state receivership. The DUTA contract and teacher layoffs were central to that effort, but teachers held out for what they felt was fair.

“During our recent struggles with our district, without CTA, our association would have been lost from the get-go. CTA was able to provide expert after expert for whatever issue popped up,” Cole said Tuesday. CTA President Dean Vogel spent a day in Denair. Fellow CTA-affiliate Hickman Teachers Association supplied food for a particularly tense DUTA meeting. “We haven’t felt alone throughout this crisis,” Cole said.

Smaller locals, however, do not have the manpower or institutional muscle of MTA. Its 1,525 members may be peanuts on the statewide stage, but in Stanislaus County, it is the largest educators union around and provides much of its own expertise.

Yet state and national affiliates take $860 out of each teacher’s annual dues, while MTA gets $280, Burton said by email, responding to Bee questions on behalf of the MTA. That adds up to $1.3 million leaving the local every year, the email says.

“Yes, we would have to raise MTA dues to cover the loss of the (grant) and to cover legal expenses and replace some association insurance currently provided by NEA, but in preparing our preliminary budget, estimates indicate we could conservatively reduce total dues paid from $1,106 (sic) per year by $347 annually to a total of $759 per year,” Burton wrote.

Modesto City Schools, in a widespread email, said the MTA is the sole representative of employees, and CTA may not distribute its materials on Modesto campuses or use district email to communicate with members.

However, teachers now pay to belong to CTA and NEA. The state affiliate says Modesto teachers, therefore, are its members and it should be able to distribute its fliers arguing the benefits of its services.

The district’s stand prompted a charge of unfair labor practices by the state union against the Modesto City Schools board and administrators, filed Friday with the Public Employees Relations Board. It includes a cease-and-desist request for what it calls unlawful interference in MTA governance issues and denial of CTA access to its members guaranteed by the Educational Employment Relations Act.

It further says the district’s interference is disrupting the process to such an extent that “any attempt by MTA to amend its certification to reflect disaffiliation from CTA be denied.” In other words, the May 6 vote should not count.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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