Nan Austin

Teacher contract avoids threatened strike in Modesto

Tensions rose to a fever pitch over this year’s teacher contract, but if a newly announced deal holds, the rhetoric will calm and talk of a strike will be done, at least in Modesto. Details of the settlement were not disclosed by either side pending a teachers union meeting Wednesday.

Across the board, more money in the bank but fiscal uncertainties ahead have made negotiations very tough this year. Teachers want to seize the day. Districts want to savor their options and plan for the future.

At California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock, professors are planning walkouts in April. Angry teachers are still packing boardrooms in Riverbank.

But frantic parents who saw Modesto City Schools teachers picketing can breathe easy. Teachers exercised their free speech rights with informational picketing at Lakewood, Rose Avenue, Wright and Martone elementary schools, and Gregori High.

The lime green anti-bully and “Follow the rules” T-shirts and buttons protesters wore to rebuke administrators can be put away for now, and work can begin on salary negotiations for the 2016-17 year beginning July 1.

This was the closest the Modesto City Schools district had come to a strike in recent memory. Other contract talks have dragged on as state budgets flipped and waffled during the Great Recession, but calls for a strike came this year, from speakers at board meetings and signs at protests.

The Modesto Teachers Association sent protest and strike action legal limits to their members. The California School Employees Association, union for the Modesto support staff, told its members that if the teachers went on strike, the staffers still had to show up for work and to call in sick if only they could provide a doctor’s note. CSEA settled with the district for 4 percent, as did Modesto City Schools managers and administrative staff.

Modesto teachers did walk out of classrooms in March 1980, the first teachers strike in Stanislaus County history. It took a court injunction to bring them back and 14 more months to settle the contract.

“Nobody wins. I was there last time. Everybody loses,” said Raquel Flores, a Modesto City Schools elementary teacher for 33 years.

“Even though we got what we wanted, it was bad after,” Flores said in a phone call last week before news of the settlement, citing terrible morale at schools after the 10-day strike.

“The teachers that walk across (picket lines). They don’t know how ugly it gets,” she said. “For them to be talking that now, seriously talking about it ... ,” she broke off mid-sentence, then said simply, “Everybody loses.”

There were 147 teachers at the time who crossed the lines to work, while 726 – 83 percent – stayed home. The bitter dispute pitted friends and family members against each other, Flores said, and everyone underestimated the financial hit they would take.

Teachers are paid over 12 months for about 185 days of work, matching students’ roughly 13 weeks off through the year. For a teacher in 2000 paid $52,000, the cut would have equaled about $2,800 – not the pre-tax $2,000 that would normally show up for two-week paycheck.

“It was a big hit for those two weeks,” Flores said.

The district also took a hit. About one-third of the students stayed home, cutting attendance revenue for the district even as it paid for extras because of the strike. Substitute teachers were paid $100 a day, she said, arriving in buses to get past the picketers.

“They paid for security guards at every school,” she said. “I thought that was a waste of money.”

Teachers in Turlock have just settled for a 4 percent raise and a larger contribution to health care. Early contracts in other Stanislaus County districts have settled mostly in the 4 percent to 5 percent range. Salida and Patterson teachers got the 6 percent range, Manteca teachers got 9 percent and other, not-yet-signed deals will be higher than the 5 percent mark, CTA officials said.

Meanwhile in Ceres, negotiators will meet again later this month. Riverbank Unified and its teachers are at loggerheads. All are still wrangling over the 2015-16 contract – yes, the school year with less than four months to go.

But there is a legal process that has to plod through its paces before teachers can strike.

After direct negotiations grind to a halt, the union and district declare an impasse. They next bring in a state mediator – the stage Modesto has reached. If the mediator cannot bring the sides to agreement, there is a budget review and a recommendation issued by an outside panel and a 10-day waiting period to consider it.

Then, and only then, is the school district free to impose its last offer and teachers are authorized to strike. Each stage takes weeks, even months, and can stop on a dime if talks make progress. The process moves slowly by design.

But away from the negotiating table, fury and frustration are palpable. Behind the bombast, there are real fears and genuine outrage on both sides. And the community, while it may not realize it, has the largest stake in the outcome.

Everything neighborhoods want for their schools competes with everything else under the state’s new local-control framework. Here are some thoughts on what is at stake.

Labor’s stand: With a California case before the U.S. Supreme Court that could up-end public-sector unions, and presidential candidates reminding us the middle class is in peril, there is a sense in all of the speeches that there is more at stake here than a contract.

Stan State professor John Garcia put it this way in an email: “Higher education is simply one area where mobilized actions are needed. The economic gap between the rich and poor (which simultaneously places considerable power in the hands of a few) is to the point where community members must respond. The health and well-being of our communities now depend on collective resistance and action.”

MTA, hobbled by internal struggles last year, found unity this year. Along with the pay and prep-time issues, the union has been fighting Modesto City Schools administration efforts to give campuses greater autonomy. Whether teachers are more included or excluded by the process is hotly debated, but either way, the union’s traditional role of holding the district’s toes to the fire loses some heat when the district walks away.

Future earnings: School funding under the new state formula is more fair but no less intricate. Here is the upshot regarding this contract. Schools in this area, especially the poorest ones, have lots more money this year and next.

But after that the one-time infusion ends and funding flattens even if the state’s recovery keeps going gangbusters – which it might not. This is the year to push and push hard for the raises that will really move the needle for better retirements.

It should be mentioned that teachers have awesome retirements, better than public safety for the longest careers. Contributions to the California State Teachers Retirement System to pay for them will rise to about 10 percent out of paychecks for teachers, 19 percent on top of payroll for school districts – another curb on future raises.

“This is the year CTA is going to dig in and bargain hard. We’re seeing it up and down the state,” said Don Gatti, head of Stanislaus County Office of Education Business Services, which checks district budgets.

Student needs: The people not at the bargaining table are the short ones. In Riverbank and Modesto, more than 80 percent of the younger children they serve are poor, English learners or foster kids – the ones the state now pays districts more to help.

Both districts have seen big increases in funding meant to go to additional services these children require, and both have invested in counseling, teacher training, after-school programs and plans for student devices.

The size of the raises being sought by teachers could reach into those extra dollars, especially because support staff and administrator contracts have me-too clauses that will likely spread whatever the teachers get districtwide.

But money set aside for high-needs students can only go to paying more to the same people doing the same thing if the district can show it improves the prospects of those children, according to the California Department of Education.

If the poorest schools cannot keep qualified teachers in the classroom, a pay raise at those schools might meet that bar. If the teachers need additional training or will be working a longer school day, so-called supplemental dollars could pay for those.

At Robertson Road Elementary in southwest Modesto, teachers were paid more to work longer days in 2012-13 under a voluntary, grant-funded program. Their students’ scores soared. While that was only a tiny program for a short time, it was an example in which extra pay could be argued to have made a big difference for kids.

Unions have pointed to a growing nationwide teacher shortage – and there is one – saying this meets the need-for-teachers bar to free those supplemental dollars for bargaining. But union and district officials in Modesto say there is no discussion of extra pay to teach in the neediest schools or for longer days, as was the case at Robertson Road.

With no incentive to draw top teachers to its west-side schools, and a 2014-15 average teacher pay of $81,720, Modesto might be hard-pressed to convince the state that higher salaries are the best support for its needy children.

Fairness and respect: Union leaders characterize the pay issue as showing disrespect for hardworking teachers, and those arguments gain traction when comparing the raises under discussion – most teachers in districts in Stanislaus County have so far settled in the 4 percent to 6 percent range – to those given to particular administrators.

In Riverbank, the two top-tier administrators received 21 percent raises. Both worked at lower salaries than others in similar jobs through the recession, and the boost put them midrange among Stanislaus County districts. But, as Riverbank staffer Dianna Gonzalez put it at a recent meeting, “If you were able to have a 21 percent raise, we have money.”

In Modesto, there have been roughly $3 million in added or augmented administrative positions, figured using a union list of positions and district pay schedules. But what really chafes, judging from teacher comments at board meetings, is a nearly $12,000 raise, 7.3 percent, given to head of human resources Craig Rydquist with his elevation to deputy superintendent in June.

Raises granted to its 1,500 or so teachers will cost Modesto City Schools $1.5 million for every percentage point granted – $6 million more for the 4 percent offered, $11 million for the 7.3 percent MTA said was its final offer because of the Rydquist raise.

The hikes granted to a few top-tier administrators are small potatoes in education budgets. But it remains to be seen how much those paltry thousands will cost districts in the long run.

Fairness in overall education funding has been argued by the California State PTA with Robles-Wong v. California, which had its appeal heard in San Francisco on Jan. 27.

“California’s health and well-being depends upon an educated citizenry,” said California State PTA President Justine Fischer. “And, although funding for education has increased somewhat since the depths of the recession, California’s schools still remain substantially underfunded and under-resourced by all measures.”

“California State PTA believes that state funding must be adequate to ensure all children have the opportunity to succeed and that we begin to close the opportunity and achievement gap,” she said in a statement.

Strong arguments can be made for better across-the-board funding for California schools, which would allow for better pay for teachers, better-built campuses and lower student costs for college.

That is a separate argument, however, from sorting out priorities for the funding schools have now.

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin

The dollars

Modesto City Schools has more money in 2015-16 under the Local Control Funding Formula. Here are the basic numbers:

$211 million: Base funding expected for 2015-16, nearly $28 million more than the year before, available for all uses – raises compete with adding staff, buying schoolbooks or laptops, replacing roofs.

$52.8 million: Supplemental funding to help poor kids, English learners and foster children, though what exactly qualifies and how that will be enforced is not yet clear.

Spent so far: Besides the 4 percent set aside for raises, some of the additional money has hired assistant principals for elementary schools, security staff and yard duties, bought technology and added student services using outside companies. Roughly $3 million has gone into administration. More is budgeted for campus repairs and to replace an aging elementary school’s multipurpose room.

Source: Modesto City Schools agenda reports and Modesto Teachers Association