Riverbank Unified teachers, parents stage a sit-in, refuse to leave abruptly closed board meeting

Riverbank Unified trustees, facing an overflow crowd of protesting teachers and upset parents, declared a closed session and beat a quick retreat Tuesday night.

Labor problems and greatly expanded fees to the district’s dual-language charter school drew the overcapacity crush. The board returned and hour and a half later, with law enforcement in the room and a mandate from the fire marshal that a portion of the crowd disperse.

Board President Suzanne Dean had opened the scheduled 5:30 p.m. meeting and immediately announced the agenda would flip to first discuss negotiations in a closed session before holding the open meeting, telling the public to clear the room until 7 p.m.

The crowd, however, did not leave. Teachers declared they were staging a sit-in, and the board withdrew instead. Some of the estimated 150 attendees in the 75-person-capacity room went home. But more than 100 milled about the boardroom and reception area, including families with young children waiting to speak.

Stanislaus County sheriff’s deputies assigned to Riverbank and the county fire marshal arrived before the board’s return. Audience overflow was sent to two classrooms in adjacent Adelante High to watch the meeting via a feed from a staff member’s cellphone.

Riverbank teachers and support staff have yet to settle their contract for the 2014-15 school year. Teachers are asking for a 12.5 percent raise. Support staff is seeking 6 percent. The district is offering 4 percent to both, said Marcus Wirowek, senior director of human resources.

A financial update given to the board described a district still grappling with declining enrollment and past years of deficit spending. A 12.5 percent raise would bankrupt the small district within four years, said Chief Business Official Roberto Perez Jr., pointing to a shrinking reserve balance also drained by textbooks, track maintenance and computers for students.

Teachers disputed the numbers. At a time when other districts in the area are offering far more, they said, the wait for a contract is testing their loyalty.

Union President Jim Boling said teachers have gone years without a raise, falling to among the lowest paid in the area, and are being asked to work longer days.

Large raises given to the two administrators in June, lifting them to salaries in the mid-range of similarly sized districts, figured heavily in staff comments involving the stalled negotiations.

“I listened to the whole presentation. We know we have money. If you were able to have a 21 percent raise, we have money,” said Dianna Gonzalez, president of the California School Employees Association, the support staff union.

Parents, second-graders and teachers from the Riverbank Language Academy charter school waited until after 9 p.m. to speak on behalf of their item at the bottom of the agenda. The charter school was asking to add another third-grade classroom to bring class sizes down to 24, the class size at other Riverbank schools. The board voted unanimously to approve the request.

The board also was expected to discuss and possibly approve a revised Riverbank Language Academy charter contract that would have raised ongoing charges to the school from about $900,000 to $1.6 million.

The school pays a facility fee for use of the former Rio Altura Elementary campus, a per-child charge for special education costs across the district and a proportion of utility fees and administrative overhead. The change would mean giving the district roughly 40 percent of the school’s operating budget, said Principal Vanessa Rojas.

The district also has asked the charter school to pay eight years of services that were never billed. The charges add up to $1.6 million, said Superintendent Daryl Camp.

Veteran RLA parents said in extensive meetings with district staff during those years that all the expenses were discussed and, they believed, paid. As a dependent charter, the school district manages the school’s finances.

“So, I am very confused,” said parent Mia Acala Van Houten. “We expected RUSD to pay the bills. That’s what we contracted you to do.”

“Valid point,” conceded Camp after the meeting. “I don’t think the book is totally closed at this point.”

At the suggestion of board president Dean, trustees tabled action on the contract and past billing charges for a future meeting to be held at the campus.

“I think we need an independent audit,” Dean said.

“I think it needs to be really clear,” said trustee Susan Taylor. “There is a lot of misunderstanding.”

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin

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