Let’s face it: Contract negotiations between school districts and the teachers union are a drag. There are theatrics, muscle-flexing, flag-waving and shows of solidarity. And that’s just the first 10 minutes of a San Diego Unified school board meeting.

And because bargaining laws allow school districts and unions to discuss contract details in private, the community is usually the last to understand what’s actually on the table.

The district is required to keep the public up to speed and announce deals – and what they mean – within a day from the time they’re struck. But San Diego Unified can lag in its communication to the public.

Another wrench: The district must draft a budget before it knows exactly what it will receive from Sacramento for the following year. That means its financial decisions are subject to change, based on the final amount it will get from the state.

It’s complicated and often shrouded in secret – so let’s shine some light on the whole process.

How Collective Bargaining Works

A state law passed in 1975 guaranteed unions the right to bargain certain items, like wages and hours. Other things, like teacher tenure, are off the table.

The district and teachers union each start out with an initial proposal, which they make available for public comment. In San Diego Unified’s case, they made an opening offer at the end of April. It can be amended based on feedback.

If the proposal is approved, it moves forward and negotiations begin. Compromises can be made, and ideally, the two parties reach a tentative agreement. After this, the new contract is put before the public once again. If both parties are square, the final contract is signed.

Of course, it’s always possible that one party feels jilted and digs in its heels. A state-level mediator could step in at that point. The mediator could then make a nonbinding recommendation on how to move forward.

Worst-case scenario: The union can call a strike and stop working altogether.

If both parties agree, though, the public can be kept in the loop at any point in these negotiations.

But San Diego Unified, like most California school districts, keeps the community on a sort of need-to-know basis until it’s ready to post its agreement for comments.

In negotiations, it’s common for both sides to say the choices come down to what’s best for kids.

The reality is all but a few of these issues come down to money, and with the district facing an estimated $115 million shortfall for next year, somebody will have to compromise.

Here’s some of what’s on the table.

Teacher Evaluations

In its initial proposal, the district asked for changes to the way in which teachers are evaluated.

The issue is at the root of a longstanding effort to hold teachers accountable for their perceived effectiveness.

Unlike other districts like Los Angeles Unified, San Diego Unified isn’t talking about using student test scores as a factor in teacher evaluations. Instead, Superintendent Cindy Marten said she’d like to find a way to include feedback from students and parents.

Interpretations vary on what this would look like in practice. They range from having the feedback included in formal evaluations, to having feedback sent to the teacher privately, in a way that’s kept anonymous from the principal.

The union, on the other hand, believes potential changes could hurt teachers if an upset student or parent didn’t like the way they were graded.

Wages and Health Care

Both of these are related to take-home pay. A few years ago, teachers agreed to pass on pay raises they were promised in order to avoid mass layoffs.

The district made good on what it owed teachers, but the union says they’re still paid less than other teachers across the county.

When we vetted this claim in the past, we found San Diego Unified teachers do indeed make less than teachers in other districts, but they also receive better health care benefits.

Leading up to negotiations, the district said it could save millions if the union agreed to change health care providers and move from its current system – a kind of health trust run jointly by labor and management from several participating districts – to a provider like Kaiser.

Union representatives say the change would disrupt the continuity of teachers’ health care, potentially making them scramble to find different doctors.

Clarification of Job Descriptions

This one’s fairly self-explanatory. Trustee Scott Barnett said the world has changed a lot since 1984, but job descriptions for teachers in the district haven’t.

Barnett said that some teachers may not want – or know how to – use technology in their classrooms. Changes to the contract could make that part of their assigned duties.

Class Sizes

Teachers like small classes. Smaller classes mean students get more personal attention. Large classes also mean more work: There’s more prep time, more time spent grading and it’s more challenging to manage students’ behavior.

Currently, classes are capped at 36 students – fewer for younger students and certain schools. Marten told U-T San Diego she understands the resistance to larger classes, but wants the option of lifting the cap in certain situations.

As a former principal of Central Elementary, she rallied against larger classes with the rest of her teachers. But now she’d like to have some flexibility to experiment.

The union, however, is afraid “flexibility” will eventually turn into larger classes across the board.

Marten told the U-T that high school students don’t know what it’s like to learn in a college-style, lecture hall environment. Running certain classes that way could get them some practice.

“What I will say is the most highly effective teachers are going to be effective whether they have 40 kids in the class or whether they have five kids in the class,” she said.


The district and union are still negotiating, and haven’t yet struck a tentative deal.

San Diego Unified was hoping that Gov. Jerry Brown might kick additional money to school districts after his May budget revision. But this week, the district learned that they wouldn’t see extra cash.

At the end of June, the same time its current contract with the union will expire, the district will have to finalize its budget.

If the district and union don’t strike a deal by then, the district could declare an impasse, and a mediating body could step in. If all else fails, there are the nuclear options: The district could impose its last and best offer, and the union could call a strike.

This means San Diego Unified will currently have a little more than a month to make its choices – with less money than it hoped to have. In other words, it’s about to get real.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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