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Wednesday, August 6, 2008 | Teaching would be great, Tomas Morales joked, if he only had to teach. But lessons are only a fraction of what Morales does in a typical day in his fourth and fifth grade classes at the Language Academy.

Morales meets with parents to discuss how to specialize classes for students with disabilities; he attends trainings for new curricula and new state tests, plans lessons, fills out paperwork, and attends to minor medical needs when the nurse is away.

And come fall, Morales will only be busier. Hewing to a new, more detailed format for report cards will consume even more of his time.

“There’s no way any teacher can do it within the normal hours,” Morales said.

His workload would change dramatically under an ambitious proposal by the San Diego teachers union that would give educators more time or money when San Diego Unified adds more tasks to their plate. The proposal would also boost educators’ pay, clamp down on class sizes, and limit the workloads of special educators based on how much help their students need, not the number of students they serve.

But as budgets face slimming from the state, realizing the union’s dream could be difficult. The school district countered the union with a far shorter proposal that was silent on salaries, stressed changing class sizes for “economic realities,” and would comply with a new California law that limits the hiring privileges of teachers who transfer from within the school district. Superintendent Terry Grier demurred from commenting on the bargaining, saying that the negotiations shouldn’t be politicized.

The gulf between the two proposals could lengthen negotiations this fall, as San Diego Unified opens the entire teachers contract for bargaining. Negotiations begin in September. Past negotiations with other unions have stretched as long as 18 months, and finding middle ground between the teachers union and the district could take time, said Willy Surbrook, director of labor relations.

“Just look at the writer’s strike,” Surbrook said, invoking the recent Writers Guild of America strike. “There, they had revenue that they were negotiating over. Here we have a revenue stream that’s drying up. So how do you meet the demands in the union’s proposal?”

Their back-and-forth could radically alter working conditions for San Diego teachers, unlike negotiations last year, which only dealt with salaries and benefits. Working in San Diego Unified is a mixed bag for teachers, who have lower starting salaries and lack some provisions enjoyed by teachers in other large California districts, but can earn more later in their careers.

Union Pushing to Rethink Teacher Workloads, Class Sizes

An analysis by the National Council on Teacher Quality turns up some significant differences between working conditions in San Diego, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Fresno, Elk Grove and San Francisco: Middle and high school teachers in San Diego get about as much guaranteed time to prepare lessons as their peers in San Francisco and Los Angeles, but elementary teachers are allowed only nine minutes daily, compared to 40 minutes in Los Angeles and 36 in Elk Grove. Other large California districts limit how often teachers are pulled into faculty meetings, and how long they span; San Diego teachers must meet whenever the principal calls them.

Standardized tests and new San Diego Unified initiatives have consumed more and more teacher time, often exceeding the 40-hour week that teachers are supposed to work, said teachers union vice president Marc Capitelli. He estimated that a new initiative, the standards-based report card, takes another 20 to 30 hours quarterly.

“The argument is not with the report card. But where is the time coming from?” Capitelli asked. “What are we taking off teachers’ plate if we add something?”

To balance the growing demands on teacher time, the union proposed giving teachers a “full plate” clause. That would allow teachers to reject new work unless other work is taken off their plate. Educators would be paid more or given extra time for writing the new report cards or doing new tests imposed by the school district.

In addition, teachers who work with children with special needs would calculate their workloads based on student needs, not student numbers. That means that 16 students with mild learning disabilities would count differently than 16 students with severe autism.

Workloads in special education have proven problematic: Special education teacher Catherine Boling said that when her assistant left in the afternoon, it became “nearly impossible” to effectively teach a class of 14 elementary school students with less severe needs, such as mild autism and learning disabilities. One student needed regular breaks so that he could focus; another slept and refused to work.

“It became student control,” said Bohling, who teaches first, second and third graders at Hawthorne Elementary. “There wasn’t much learning taking place. … We just did fun stuff in the afternoon. The whole class really needs someone circling around, going to their desks, making sure they’re on the right page, trying to spark their attention again.”

The union also wants to shrink class sizes from fourth to twelfth grade, which would require hiring more teachers, and keep classes small in lower grades. San Diego Unified currently receives some state funding to help pay for smaller classes from kindergarten to third grade, and weighed scrapping the program and forgoing the state funds during budget cuts. Class size agreements with the teachers union prevented San Diego Unified from taking that step.

“It’s a good thing their hands were tied,” Zombro said. “We had a contract to stop them.”

Now the union is seeking to clamp down more firmly by ending the practice of averaging class sizes. Under existing rules, a high school could have a class of more than 45 students, some of them with special needs, yet not violate the contract as long as the average class was smaller than 36 students. Teachers relay horror stories about peers scrambling to serve 40 or even 50 students singlehandedly.

San Diego Unified is also pushing to change class size: Ninth grade English classes may be whittled down to 20 students, and 30 elementary schools will enjoy classes of only 15 students between kindergarten and second grade as part of a study. But its efforts have not been coordinated with the union.

Zombro complained that the class size efforts are “experiments” that have not been bargained with teachers; Superintendent Terry Grier countered that the study doesn’t violate the rules on class size. And while San Diego Unified discusses smaller classes in certain grades, it has proposed altering the contract to negotiate changes in class size “to respond to economic realities,” a phrase that suggests loosening the class size rules in tight times, not shoring them up.

Beginners Earn Less, But Veterans Rewarded in San Diego

Salaries are also an ongoing concern. A new teacher with a bachelor’s degree makes almost $10,000 less annually in San Diego Unified than in Long Beach Unified; Los Angeles, San Francisco and Fresno also pay more, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality. Countywide, the teachers union ranks their earnings 32nd among 38 local school districts. Their goal is to hike San Diego Unified teachers’ earnings to the county median — a 5 percent boost that would pay the average teacher an additional $61,501 over the course of a 20-year career.

But the system does reward veterans: Over time, San Diego Unified teachers can earn higher pay than teachers in some large California districts. That rankles Bill Wright, vice chair of the school district’s audit and finance committee, who said San Diego Unified shouldn’t reward employees just for longevity. While that is common among school districts, Wright said it makes little sense in the private sector and doesn’t correspond to teacher quality.

“You didn’t necessarily do anything spectacular,” Wright said. “You just didn’t get fired.”

And getting a master’s degree can boost teacher salaries somewhat. Though beginners still earn less than teachers elsewhere, the longest-working teachers with a master’s degree make more than similarly qualified teachers in Los Angeles and San Francisco, though not as much as in Long Beach. That concerns National Council on Teacher Quality policy analyst Emily Cohen, who said little research shows that a master’s degree makes teachers more effective in the classroom.

“They’re continually rewarding something that doesn’t have any actual effectiveness,” she said.

The terse proposal from San Diego Unified includes few specifics and few surprises. One of its proposals has already been agreed upon by the union and the school district: Reducing health and welfare benefits closer to 2004 levels.

Another was imposed by a statewide bill opposed by the California Teachers Association that limits the privileges of teachers transferring inside the school district by requiring schools to open hiring to all qualified candidates by April 15. Proponents such as New Teacher Project president Timothy Daly said the law helps urban districts snap up more promising teachers, who have often lost those candidates to suburban districts that make job offers earlier.

Absent from the San Diego Unified proposal is any mention of differential pay, the burgeoning practice of paying some teachers more than others. Los Angeles pays teachers about $2,000 more to work in disadvantaged schools; San Francisco recently agreed to bonuses for teachers working in hard-to-staff schools or subjects that suffer staffing shortages as part of its parcel tax.

Differential pay was a hallmark of Superintendent Terry Grier’s previous school district in North Carolina, where teachers are paid for boosting test scores among their students. That district topped all others in a study by the right-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which prized school districts with looser contracts that give principals more power and flexibility to make decisions. San Diego Unified ranked 48th out of 50 in the same study, which recommended that the school board push bonuses for performance and for teaching in needy schools.

Grier has not broached the idea with the union, but he often includes articles about differential pay in his weekly updates to San Diego Unified staff. Zombro called differential pay “an abhorrent idea” that doesn’t address the real problem of “intolerable working conditions” at schools in low-income neighborhoods. Cohen said that bonuses are a popular reform, but there is no evidence yet to show that they help students.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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