Labor tensions add to district fiscal woes

Labor tensions add to district fiscal woes

Correction: A prior version of this story incorrectly reported that Chico Unified was among the districts in California with labor-management tensions. Superintendent Kelly Staley said in an email that the district and teachers are engaged in 'Interest Based Bargaining' and "enjoy a very positive relationship."

(Calif.) If it seems that labor strife in the Golden State is running higher than normal, it is.

Last month, teachers in Calaveras Unified went on a four-day strike before coming to terms on a two-year contract. Tense standoffs in Sacramento and San Francisco were defused just ahead of strike deadlines.

But the threat of a walkout still looms over schools in Fresno, Oceanside, San Mateo, Davis and San Juan Capistrano—there are probably others whose contract issues are not being covered by local media.

Typically, tension between school districts and their employee associations are greatest during tough economic times, and while there are some fiscal issues which drive conflict, there are politically-inspired catalysts as well.

First is Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31, a lawsuit pending before the U.S. Supreme Court where justices will be asked to decide if public sector workers can compelled by state law to pay union dues as a condition of employment.

Second is SB 751, legislation sponsored by the California School Boards Association that was signed into law last month and softens restrictions on how much money districts can keep in reserve, and thus, off the contract negotiations table.

Between the two events, the California Teachers Association could be feeling the need to flex its muscles and remind both state and local officials that classroom educators remain a potent force in California politics.

That said, teachers up and down the state struggle to keep up with the high-cost of living in many regions and the growing demands of the job.

Teachers in San Francisco, for instance, had an average salary in 2015-16 of $67,540 according to a survey conducted by the San Francisco Chronicle. That put them about in the middle of all districts across California even though San Francisco is the state’s sixth most expensive housing market with the average home price close to $1.3 million.

The agreement reached between San Francisco Unified and its teacher union, just days before a scheduled strike vote, will provide an 11 percent raise over three years, according to published reports. In addition, the district has agreed to several other concessions that will boost pay overall by 16 percent.

Vincent Matthews, San Francisco superintendent, said the contract will be a “stretch” for the district to comply with but hoped to find savings in other areas.

Although the California economy has been booming over the past three years and state resources have been plentiful for schools, there are headwinds. One of the biggest is the growing cost of employee pensions.

Under an agreement made with the Legislature to stabilize teacher retirement funds, the pension contributions for school districts will grow from $497 per student in 2013-14 to $1,608 in 2013-24.

In some cases, the added costs along with that of health care has already begun to undermine district finances.

A year ago, 16 districts reported that based on current projections they were in jeopardy of not meeting their financial obligations over the next three years, putting each into the so-called qualified budget certification.

This year, the number in the same category jumped to 31 and there are expectations that when the new reports come out for the 2017-18 school year, the number will grow again.