Alameda Teachers in Turmoil

Rank-and-file teachers rejected a contract deal negotiated by their own leaders. What will happen next?


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Former Alameda teachers’ union president Patricia Sanders strongly opposed the tentative deal.

Photo by Chris Duffey

In a surprise move, Alameda teachers in June rejected a tentative contract deal that their union’s leadership had negotiated with the Alameda Unified School District. Typically, rank-and-file union members ratify tentative deals negotiated by their own union. But in Alameda, an overwhelming 70 percent of teachers who cast ballots voted down the agreement, revealing an unusual break from union leadership and exposing tensions within the union over teacher salary and class size.

“If this contract is agreed upon, we sort of got a raise and potential class size increase,” wrote Denise Ratto, a teacher at Donald Lum Elementary, in a Facebook post days before the election. “I won’t be voting for this contract.”

In terms of pay, the contract called for a 3.7 percent raise for teachers. About 3.1 percent of the increase would have been new money, and 0.6 percent would have been transferred from funds set aside for dental benefits. However, only about 1 percent of the raise would have gone into teachers’ pockets, while the rest constituted mandatory contributions to CalSTRS, the state’s teacher retirement system.

It was “effectively a 1.1 percent raise. That’s all the extra take home pay we’d get,” said Allison Goldberg who was been teaching in the district for 17 years. “We should at least be median in the county.”

According to a report by the California Department of Education, Alameda teachers are among the lowest paid in Alameda County, with an average salary of $63,339 in the 2014-15 school year, behind only Oakland.

“I’m sick and tired of them making excuses for why they can’t pay us,” Goldberg said. “They never admit that we are basically scraping bottom.”

Goldberg said that in order to make ends meet, she rents her house on Airbnb, sometimes staying at friends’ houses to free up her place for the extra cash. She said she buys her health coverage from Covered California, the state’s version of Obamacare, because she can’t afford the health plan offered by the district. “Only those of us who are old guard feel the draw to stay [in Alameda]—out years of service [and] our tight connection to the community. …” she said. “No new teachers wanna come to Alameda anymore. It’s sad. And it’s gonna really hurt the district and ultimately the kids.”

In a statement, Alameda schools Superintendent Sean McPhetridge said that for the 2016-17 school year, the district will receive the same amount of funding from the state as it did in 2008. “[A]nd that means much of that revenue is earmarked by the state for educational programs, which means it is not available for employee raises,” he added.

 

He also explained that the state has been steadily increasing the amount of money employees are required to contribute to their pensions. “AUSD covered the increase for AEA members for two years,” he said, referring to the teachers’ union, Alameda Education Association.

Lastly, he said that there is uncertainty over whether Measure A, a parcel tax that provides $12 million per year to Alameda schools, will pass in November. “Even if the voters do approve the renewal, we are currently projecting a multimillion-dollar deficit by 2019.

“We’d love to pay staff more,” he continued. “The reality is that California is still underfunding public education.”

Yet despite teachers’ concerns about the salary increase, a survey taken after the vote showed that rank-and-file teachers rejected the tentative deal in large part because of “new language that put four extra students in the classroom,” said union president Audrey Hyman.

“Teachers are concerned that it could open door for district to raise class size on a forward-going basis,” Hyman added.

In an email sent to Alameda teachers days before the election, former union president Patricia Sanders warned that if the proposed contract was ratified, “We begin to journey down the slippery slope of whittling away our existing class size limits: we contribute to limiting the number of teaching jobs in the AUSD; we contribute to the District increasing the workload of potentially many of our colleagues and compensating them at a fraction of what that work is actually worth; and the students of Alameda suffer when they are placed in over-enrolled classrooms.”

Many teachers agreed.

“This is huge,” Sylvia Gibson, an independent high school teacher, wrote in the email chain that included Sanders’ missive. “The proposed contract allows the district to raise class sizes indefinitely without fair compensation to teachers. I will definitely vote it down.”

Sanders’ email appeared to have had a major impact on the vote, but some teachers felt the former president’s warning was just a political move. One year ago, Sanders led a challenge to election results in which Hyman was elected president of the union. Another election was conducted, and Sanders lost.

In a recent interview, Sanders said her email was not politically motivated. “If that’s all it were, they wouldn’t have voted it down,” she said.

“Once teachers realized we needed to look at the language through a different lens, there was a consensus that it was not language we wanted in our contract,” she added, explaining that class-size limits were something she focused on during her term as president. “Smaller class sizes is a promise we’ve made to community in the past, and if that’s starts to erode then it becomes a slippery slope.”

Regarding the email chain that included Sanders’ email, Hyman, the current president, said: “Any association democratic in nature is going to have discussion among its members. Unfortunately the emails were sent out on school district system ... and we want to of course have a united front.”

The union’s bargaining team and the school district are scheduled to renew contract negotiations this month.

Published online on Sept. 6, 2016 at 8 a.m.

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