Thursday, July 9, 2009 | Bargaining between San Diego Unified and its teachers is dragging on behind closed doors more than a year after their old contract expired. It has now stretched longer than the negotiations that spurred a teachers’ strike over a decade ago.

“It’s not a record,” said longtime school board member John de Beck. “But it’s getting close.”

Progress has been slow despite the election of new school board members backed by the union, which was widely perceived as a coup for labor. Both sides first aired their proposals last spring, a timeline that would ideally allow for a new contract to be signed before the last one expires.

While the old agreement has expired, it still remains in effect, guaranteeing the same rights to teachers. But without a contract, the school district is left with the ongoing tensions that linger without a settled contract and the possibility, however likely or unlikely, of a strike. Though the talks are taking place behind closed doors, interviews and a handful of written proposals reveal that the two sides are still struggling to reach agreement on a wide range of issues.

Key issues include pay, whether health benefits will be trimmed or altered, how teachers will be evaluated and how often, and how to protest warnings. And one of the thorniest issues still looms: How to limit teacher workloads without bogging schools down in negotiations over minutiae.

Several factors slowed the pace of bargaining. Three of the key people bargaining for San Diego Unified have either retired or left the negotiations midstream. The union likewise replaced its executive director in January, changing another face at the table.

And labor leaders distrust Superintendent Terry Grier, who has struggled to cement a relationship with the union this year. And budget woes haven’t helped. Much time has been spent hammering out plans to solve immediate staffing problems, rather than the bigger issues, and wildly changing estimates of the district deficit have undercut the talks.

“Are they trying to deceive us to extract concessions? Or are they so shook up that they can’t generate accurate information?” asked Craig Leedham, a field organizer for the union. “Either way — it’s really difficult to talk about wages and benefits when we suddenly have a $100 million change in the budget.”

Yet despite the long timeline, Mark Bresee, the attorney who is leading the negotiations for San Diego Unified, said he is optimistic that the tide is turning. Some agreements have been reached: The two sides have set up a committee to figure out a new way of setting teacher workloads in special education and worked out the details of a golden handshake and an incentive to retrain elementary teachers left without jobs as special education teachers. Both sides seem to be interested in capping class size.

“I think our momentum is toward one another — not away from one another,” Bresee said.

Debating How to Limit Teacher Workloads

A key issue is teacher workloads, which became a bone of contention among teachers last fall as new tests and duties such as filling out a more detailed report card were added to their plates. Adding more duties means less time to prepare and teach, said Raymond Ruffin, a science teacher at Montgomery Middle School in Linda Vista.

“People think we come in, we use a textbook and place it in front of the student and we lecture them out of that textbook and they take a test and that’s how we assess student performance. They don’t realize the amount of time that goes into researching the materials you’re presenting, the accommodations you have to make for students with disabilities, the amount of time you have to put into management of the classroom — the intricacies of teaching,” Ruffin said.

A union proposal called “maintenance of standards” says that “all terms and conditions of employment” would be kept at “not less than the highest minimum standards in effect” as of last June. Camille Zombro, president of the teachers union, described it as a way to prevent schools from overloading teachers with new projects and duties, figuring out how much time the new work would take and offsetting it by removing other responsibilities. Dom Summa, assistant executive director for negotiations for the California Teachers Association, said it would open up a dialogue with teachers.

“Nothing stops them from introducing something new,” said Steven Johnson, executive director of the San Diego Education Association. “We can’t say no. We can’t prevent them. But they have to manage their time.”

The school district has agreed that workloads are a problem, but has been uneasy with the proposed language put forward by the union. Its counterproposal argued that the rule should focus on changes that are ongoing and substantive, not minor, and that problems should be dealt with by a joint committee before grievances are filed. It also proposed making the rule a pilot program for two years.

The idea is not new. Teacher contracts from Alaska to Iowa have similar provisions. In North Syracuse Central School District, union leaders said the clause doesn’t give them a veto over school plans and the human resources director said the rule hasn’t been disputed in over a decade.

“The administration can’t just make a decision and move forward,” Director of Human Resources Annette Speach said, adding, “Change will occur, but change will occur at a slower pace, hopefully with more buy-in from teachers.”

But several outside experts who reviewed the proposal by San Diego teachers say the wording floated by the union is too vague and could prove problematic later. Paul Kersey, director of labor policy for the free market Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan, called it “very sweeping language” that would make almost anything subject to a grievance.

“It’s above and beyond what the district is obligated to negotiate,” said Ruben Ingram, a former superintendent and executive director of the School Employers Association of California. “Now, as a former superintendent, I would never change a grading system without discussing it with [the union.] But I wouldn’t negotiate it. There’s a big difference, right?”

There are other sticking points beyond the workload issue.

The union wants to make evaluations less frequent for veteran educators with good ratings; the school district wants to make the evaluation process match state standards for teaching and thin down “extensive and cumbersome” language about it in the contract. The union wants to allow teachers to file grievances on warnings and letters of reprimand, which can now be protested through a different process that starts with someone picked by the superintendent.

The school district says it is open to changing the process for reprimands but not for verbal and written warnings, which are less serious.

Proposed changes to health benefits — such as only providing one benefit plan when both an employee and their spouse are school district employees — have been criticized as harmful and unnecessary by the union, and weren’t part of the budget fixes ultimately used this year. A representative from the Voluntary Employee Benefits Association, a trust of school districts that seeks to lower healthcare costs without hurting quality, said that one proposal to up co-pays from $5 to $20 would not be an effective way of controlling costs. The ideas are still on a preliminary list of potential budget cuts for next year.

Both sides have shown some willingness to bend: Union leaders say they temporarily dropped their original proposal for a 1.5 percent salary increase in an attempt to settle earlier this year, but no settlement happened, leaving pay and benefits unresolved. Bresee said the school district has stopped talking about furloughs at the bargaining table. But there is no guarantee that the idea won’t come up again in the future as budgets continue to bleed.

Outside of the special education agreements and the golden handshake, there is no agreement on anything, Bresee and union leaders explained, until there is an agreement on everything.

Tensions Flaring Outside of Bargaining

Another factor in the protracted negotiations is the ongoing rancor between the union and Superintendent Terry Grier, who took over the district in early 2008. Grier, an assertive reformer who focuses on the dropout rate, has been repeatedly criticized by the union for pushing new ideas without their input, from a plan that made classes dramatically smaller at some elementary schools to stimulus plans. The superintendent was on vacation this week and referred questions about the bargaining process to Bresee.

Zombro said the union has filed an unprecedented number of labor complaints through the Public Employment Relations Board during his tenure; it also gathered signatures for a petition that implicitly skewered his management as “another top-down administration.” Supporters praise his work and argue that he needs the freedom to make change. The debate over “maintenance of standards” boils down to the same basic issue: How should change be introduced to schools?

“Whenever you have a new superintendent, they bring in a lot of new ideas and a lot of consultants, and they make changes and everyone just has to do it,” said Bruce McGirr, a recently retired principal and director of the Administrators Association. “The teachers have rightfully complained — ‘You mind at least running it past us?’ But if I had to negotiate whenever I wanted my teachers to sit on a committee — can you imagine what that would be like?”

The already strained relationship between the school district and the union took another hit during the budget crisis. Estimates of the San Diego Unified deficit rose and fell dramatically over the year based on changing information from Sacramento lawmakers and new estimates done by staffers. The most dizzying drop happened in a single week when the estimated shortfall fell 40 percent from $180 million to $106 million. De Beck called it a miracle. Weeks later, the school district ultimately cut $91.5 million from its 2009-2010 budget.

Union leaders say they were vindicated by the ultimate result — that the school district was able to balance its budget without layoffs, furloughs or salary cuts — and say that they still don’t trust the budget numbers. To get common ground on the budgets, an outside financial advisor is going to review the budgets and send them along to a union analyst, potentially as soon as the end of July. Getting agreement on the basic facts of the budget crisis will be crucial as the school district heads into what is expected to be another year of deep cuts, now estimated at roughly $65 million.

“A lot of districts are reluctant to settle until they know their money,” Summa of the California Teachers Association said. With budgets as uncertain as they are right now, “that tends to drag it on.”

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