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On Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, teachers in San Diego Unified School District cast their votes on the proposed agreement between our union and the district. It’s a tentative agreement that has been a long time coming, even though negotiations only began recently, and what ratification would say about teachers and our perspective is significant. In an era when teachers and unions are viewed cynically by a large section of the population, I hope that the parents and other community members in our district will pay attention. If we ratify the agreement, we will be making a very clear statement to the people of San Diego about our students, our work, and our priorities.

Here is what we’ll be saying to you and to ourselves:

We are willing to take a cut in pay to preserve the jobs of teachers, nurses and counselors in our district. More than 1,400 layoff notices were issued this spring; they will be rescinded if we pass the agreement.

We haven’t had a pay raise in years, and although the cost of living is skyrocketing, we are willing to forego even a COLA increase in order to keep your child’s class size the same. We know that smaller classes make for more intensive learning, and your kids’ learning is more important, more valuable, than money.

Our more senior teachers, who are close to retirement, are willing to take a reduced pension in order to keep younger teachers at our schools and provide reasonable class sizes for our students. Think about it: two years ago, we negotiated a contract that cut our salaries with the promise that the lost income would be gradually reimbursed starting this summer. That isn’t going to happen. A teacher’s pension income is based on his or her highest salary in the three years before retirement. Since the salary cuts won’t be reimbursed, retiring teachers will have lower pension income.

The district owes all of us several hundred dollars each in health care savings. We’re not taking it for ourselves; instead, we’re funneling it into a health care trust fund so that laid off teachers can still have coverage. We are paying for our brothers and sisters, not asking it of others. Most of us could use that $400 right now, but our colleagues who keep getting pink slips need it more than we do.

We’re so concerned about the budget and doing our part to help that we are going to allow the district to unilaterally impose up to 14 more furlough days if the governor’s initiative doesn’t pass in November. Think about that. If that happens, our overall pay cut will be over 17 percent.

We know that things aren’t going to get better; they’re probably going to get worse, so we are extending our contract for an extra year, even though we are already at the bottom of the barrel in terms of teacher pay and benefits in Southern California. Teachers in San Diego Unified School District make less money than other teachers in our area. That’s right: biggest district; lowest salaries. Somewhere in the world, I hear, teachers with 10 years experience earn more than $70,000 a year. Not here. I’m in my 12th year, with a master’s Degree, and bring home slightly more than $3,600 a month. I work 10 hours a day without a lunch break. I am not unique. We haven’t had a raise in years and don’t expect one anytime soon.

It’s not often that an entire workforce has the opportunity to make the kinds of choices we’re making. The reason we have this opportunity is that we are a union. Unions provide us with the bargaining power to participate fully in negotiations with our employers. Unions give us a place at the table so that we can, in these difficult times, forge agreements with the administration that benefit the people we serve.

I believe that we deserve the community’s support and respect as we move forward. I believe that our actions in ratifying the agreement will definitively prove that our priorities as teachers and union members lie not with ourselves and our own personal needs, but with our students and our collective work. And I believe that everyone in San Diego should ask him or herself: Do I have the same commitment and priorities? Would I give up this much for my co-workers? What about for my customers? Do I place their needs before my own? Would I give up pay, retirement, and contractual rights so that people in my office keep their jobs? Would I give up all of that for the people who benefit from my work?

I hope the answer is “yes.” When school starts in the fall, we’ll be there, ready to teach and support your kids, as we always are. We treasure our partnership with you. In November, we hope you’ll vote for the governor’s initiative to increase school funding. We have already put school kids before our own families’ needs; will you do the same?

Sara M. Finegan is an education specialist at Hage Elementary School.


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