Contract negotiations heat up at San Dieguito

The way the San Dieguito Union High School District is motivating all its teachers to obtain a required credential to teach English language learners has generated unrest in the district among its classified employees.

The district’s California School Employees Association, representing classified workers, objects to this incentive plan which offers $1,000 annually to teachers who achieve their English Learner authorization. CSEA leaders call the incentive a bonus and SDUHSD leaders call it a stipend.

“It’s a stipend, just like we have a Master’s stipend and various other stipends,” said Terry King, SDUHSD’s associate superintendent of human resources. “Somehow they think that whatever the teachers get they should get. It’s something that only applies to teachers.”

Ron Tackett, SDUHSD computer support technician and president of the district’s CSEA classified union, said his members question the wisdom of the $1,000 payment in the current economic crisis which for many school districts has resulted in slashed budgets, reduced services, furlough days and layoffs.

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“This is an issue that has been very frustrating and hard for our members and others to understand,” Tackett wrote on the CSEA Web site. “While I would never begrudge our hard-working certificated staff for successfully negotiating a great benefit, I do share in the concern of what choices the district has made and in the perception of inequity and low morale that has been created as a result.”

King said the stipend was negotiated as part of the district’s contract with its certificated bargaining unit, the San Dieguito Faculty Association, and was just approved for a fourth consecutive year, through 2010-2011.

“I’m actually very proud of it,” she said. “There are a lot of districts fighting over this now and disciplining teachers, and we’re not doing this. We have people who are actually happy that they’re gaining the skills and [that] we didn’t make it a miserable situation.”

King said the state mandated the requirement four or five years ago. When she first raised the issue with certificated union leadership, there was skepticism and reluctance to comply.

“But the state requires this EL authorization, and it’s a real sticky situation because it’s not just a [routine] credential requirement,” she said. “So what … I started a few years ago [was] a big push to get this authorization.”

Any teacher who has even a single English language learner in his or her class must have the authorization, she said, even if the student becomes fluent or mainstreamed into regular classes.

“We don’t have that many English language learners,” King said. “But … at a small school like Earl Warren where there’s just one drama teacher and just one art teacher, if that teacher doesn’t have the EL authorization, then we have to say that English language learner can’t take art. We’re not going to do that.”

She said the bigger schools are also affected, because the state has been increasing their requirements over the past few years. Early on, the requirement applied if there were a certain percentage of ELL students in a class, and now it applies if there’s even just one.

“We’re not going to say that this kid can only take history from this teacher and not that teacher,” King said.

The requirement also applies to every subject, even physical education.

“Say it’s a head football coach and he is teaching football P.E.,” King said. “If there’s an EL student and [the teacher] doesn’t have that authorization, then that kid can’t be on the football team.”

Based on the California Department of Education’s 2009 Academic Performance Index Base report, the number of English language learners in SDUHSD is about 8 percent, a number that’s held fairly constant for the past three years.

The percentage of ELL students last year was about 6.2 percent at Torrey Pines High School, about 1.9 percent at Canyon Crest Academy, about 8.3 percent at Carmel Valley Middle School, and about 6.3 percent at Earl Warren Middle School. For all four schools in the southern portion of the district, ELL students represent about 5.6 percent.

Protest on June 3

Tackett and his union members aren’t arguing that the authorization is unnecessary. Nor are they saying that what teachers are learning from the classes is of no value.

Rather, they object to the continued $1,000 stipend the district is providing, especially year after year, since teachers are required by the state to have the authorization regardless of whether they receive incentive money.

The stipend upsets classified employees even more when cuts are being made in other areas and CSEA workers are directly affected, said Tackett, noting that the district laid off 24 classified workers last month and reduced work hours for seven more.

Other districts, Tackett said, are cutting across the board and in some cases demanding furlough days or rolling back salaries. “Our district … offered some bonuses totaling a half-million dollars while at the same time letting classified employees go,” he said. “It’s a struggle for the classified employees to really comprehend.”

The $1,000 EL stipend comes out of the general fund and about 480 of the district’s estimated 580 teachers have earned it, King said. But many teachers are not full-time, and the stipend is awarded pro rata. So a teacher working half-time would receive $500 rather than $1,000, meaning that 480 qualified teachers does not necessarily translate into $480,000, she said.

Many classified workers plan to rally at the school board meeting on June 3. “It’s very much our hope that the board will listen to us and help encourage the district to reach a contract,” Tackett said. “They feel it’s important that the board hears about these issues.”

The CSEA contract expired in July 2009. “We’ve been in contract negotiations for almost a year,” Tackett said. “It’s unprecedented for our district.” The two parties go back to the table on June 17.

San Dieguito’s CSEA classified union represents nearly all support staff for the school district, including computer technology, administrative and office support, custodial, food service, library, security and transportation.

King responded to the CSEA union’s complaints at an April school board meeting, saying in part, “Our teachers have obtained the authorization through a variety of means. Many had to spend thousands of dollars in university tuition to earn it. Others took extensive test preparation courses and took the expensive CTEL exam.”

King said other districts are spending money on attorneys, “trying to discipline or dismiss teachers who refuse to go back to school to earn the authorization. Our teachers are willingly learning from the training and applying it in all of their classrooms. We use the ‘carrot, not the stick,’ and it is paying off – for the district legally, but more importantly, for our top priority: our students.”

Circumventing the contract

California districts are monitoring an ongoing court case involving the Ripon Unified School District in San Joaquin County, which so far has upheld the right of school districts to fire teachers who resist becoming EL-authorized.

King said some districts move unauthorized teachers from one school to another school with fewer ELL students, a practice that upsets parents, students and staff.

The more EL-authorized teachers, the less the disruption in staffing and classroom assignments, King said, claiming the stipend motivates them to get the authorization better than threats.

The issue for Tackett is not the need for the authorization but the incentive money. “San Dieguito is one of the only districts … to incentivize people to make sure they fulfill that requirement,” he said.

“Two years ago, we believe they offered it the way that they did in an effort to kind of circumvent the classified contract,” he said, citing the CSEA contract’s “me-too” clause. “Because they didn’t put that [stipend] on the salary schedule and give them an increase in salary, they didn’t have to pay the classified.”

Tackett said the district for the most part has treated employees equally, when there have been COLA increases or other allocations of money, but this time is different. “It goes back to equity,” he said. “For the past two years the teachers have received a half-million dollars each year and the classified have received absolutely nothing.”

Although King said the stipend is not meant to be a reimbursement of actual costs, the money teachers must spend to get the EL authorization is not trivial. Teachers have to produce a portfolio project and pay for classes, books, the exam and the credential from the state.

Bob Croft, president of the San Dieguito Faculty Association teachers’ union, said the EL requirement creates “a rather large burden, financial and otherwise, on our district’s certificated employees. It can be thousands of dollars and, of course, the time and energy away from their own families and job responsibilities, as they take these courses.”

Actual costs, and the time spent to achieve the authorization, can vary greatly because different institutions charge different amounts, he said.

Noncompliance means teachers cannot have a single EL-identified student in their classrooms, Croft said, creating master schedule dilemmas, equity choices for districts and potential punishments from the state. “We were also told that teachers who did not comply risked everything from not being paid to potential dismissal,” he noted.

King refused to discuss firing teachers over this issue. “I just don’t even want to look down that road,” she said. “I think it’s an ugly way to approach it.”

Using the stipend as an incentive, “we don’t have to try to move kids around or teachers around,” King said. “We’re not discriminating against any kids by saying you can’t take this subject or you can’t take it this period because that teacher doesn’t have the authorization.”

Feeling undervalued

Tackett said many of his union’s members, who number about 400, are angry over the stipend, given the district’s need to reduce expenses and the cuts they feel classified workers have unfairly shouldered.

“The classified employees are feeling a bit undervalued,” Tackett said. “There are quite a few people who are quite upset about this issue. Certainly we wouldn’t be coming to the table asking for any more than any other group has received.”

SDUHSD’s classified employees are asking for benefits they say all other district employees have, including an employer-paid dental plan, an employer-paid life insurance benefit and a 10-year healthcare retiree benefit.

Tackett said his union raised the issue of the 10-year healthcare retiree benefit four years ago. “We were upset about that and we had a pretty contentious contract bargaining going on,” he said. “So they gave us a pilot program that expires in 2013.”

The purpose of the pilot program, he said, was for the district to evaluate it. “When we’ve asked them to evaluate it, we haven’t gotten a lot of response,” he said. “We’ve asked them to look at it and we believe it shows a savings … by having people retire earlier, because people come in at a lower rate.”

He said the district is reluctant to make it permanent for classified employees, even though “everyone else has it. We’re really just looking for the parity and the equity. We think it’s time to offer it to everybody.”

Although SDUHSD is suffering under some of the most severe cuts to its budget in its history, the district agreed to continue the $1,000 stipend through 2010-2011. “I think it’s a valuable thing for the district,” King said.

King said San Dieguito has given its teachers no salary increase for several years. “And we’ve got reductions in all kinds of things,” she said. There were extra-curricular stipends that aren’t available any more. We have fewer teachers.”

She said the stipend was worth continuing because the alternative would cost the district more money in the long run.

“I don’t want to spend it on lawyers trying to fight people to do it or to try to dismiss people … to make a point over this,” King said. “We don’t have to spend one minute fighting about that. And we have teachers who have really gained in their teaching skills for all kids. So this is a good thing.”

“SDFA regards the incentive … with great respect and appreciation,” Croft said. “We all understand that teachers and districts are certainly stronger and more productive working together than against one another. With all the challenges facing public education in California, we have little time and energy to waste with the adversarial approach, which only serves, ultimately, as a detriment to our students.”

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