School board trustee Mike McQuary speaks at a town hall at Ocean Beach Elementary School. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Protesting low pay, underfunded schools and concerned about a looming Supreme Court decision that’s expected to cut deeply into union coffers and membership, teachers across several states have walked off the job, shut down school districts and demanded action.

San Diego teachers had suggested that they too could be headed toward a strike, and billed a series of scheduled town halls as a chance to mobilize members in their quest for a new contract.

But at 1:40 a.m. the night before Wednesday’s town hall at Ocean Beach Elementary, SDEA and the district reached a tentative agreement that will give teachers fully paid health care through 2020, three weeks of paid maternity leave, a 1 percent raise in August and an additional 2 percent raise next year.

So instead of fireworks, Wednesday’s town hall discussion with school board trustee Mike McQuary, who represents schools along the coast, had a notably low-key tone. Only about two dozen people showed up, fewer than planned, leaving plenty of empty chairs in the school’s auditorium and uneaten pizza for teachers to bring home.

San Diego Unified hasn’t released details on the specific costs of the agreement, but SDEA President Lindsay Burningham said at the meeting every 1 percent raise equates to roughly $6 million, for a total of $18 million over the next two years, not including other benefits. As with teachers’ previous contract, the new three-year contract will include a reopener to negotiate wages in its final year.

The agreement comes two months after the school board approved more than $8 million in cuts and a month after the board voted to eliminate 271 jobs, or 203 full-time equivalent jobs next school year to address its budget shortfall.

Despite the early victory, Burningham said the town hall meetings scheduled to happen at five schools would continue as planned so educators can press school board members to continue increasing teacher salaries and come up with a plan to address declining enrollment in district schools.

San Diego Unified has seen a relatively steady loss of students over the past 10 years, as students moved out of the district. About 20 percent of those who stayed in district boundaries attended charter schools last year, a percentage that’s leveled off in recent years.

Each student who leaves the district or transfers to a charter school represents a loss of funding for San Diego Unified, which means less money to cover operating expenses, pay teachers and cover rising pension costs.

Even though SDEA signaled in its campaign for a new contract that it would target charter schools and the “privatization” of education, charter schools barely came up during Wednesday’s meeting. Instead, teachers pressed McQuary on what the district is doing to improve student attendance, which would improve the Average Daily Attendance dollars that fund schools.

One middle school teacher said he has students who regularly miss days of school, and when they do come back, they feel lost. He asked McQuary to explain the district’s process for following up with those students to get them back in school.

“I don’t know, and I’ll look at that. Because for me, it’s (leaving) money on the table,” said McQuary.

In the past few years, school board members and Superintendent Cindy Marten have called on the state to improve school funding, pointing to figures that place California 46th nationally in per-pupil funding.

At the meeting, Burningham agreed school funding needs improvement, but also challenged McQuary on the way in which district officials have chosen to spend money.

According to numbers from SDEA, five years ago salaries for teachers, counselors, nurses and other non-supervisory certificated staff made up 40 percent of the district’s budget, but by this year it dropped to 35 percent.

In a document SDEA sent to its members, it pointed to central office bloat and excessive payments to consultants: “25 years ago, the district had 125,000 and three lawyers. Now they have 100,000 students and 6 lawyers! And they still contract out some legal services!”

There’s truth to the claim: Despite expansions to the district’s in-house legal services intended to keep costs down, the amount the district spends on outside lawyers rose by $1 million in the last two years alone. And those numbers don’t include settlements paid out to families or complainants.

To put the legal fees into context, the $12.7 million paid outside legal firms between 2012 and 2017 could have funded 26 teacher salaries per year at an average salary of $80,798.

Burningham mentioned other contracts, such as outside consultants hired to provide professional development, which she said educators could handle in-house.

Last year, the district agreed to pay PR consultant Tony Manolatos $25,000 to compile and disseminate information on the district’s 2016 graduation rate, despite the fact it has at least three full-time communications specialists.

Joshua Alpert, a teacher at Dana Middle School, said after the meeting he believes the district wastes money on bureaucratic redundancies.

“They’re always saying they don’t have enough money. My argument is, ‘You have plenty of money. You just choose to spend it in a (messed) up way,’” Alpert said.

SDEA members had until this week been nine months overdue for a contract renewal. Adding to the urgency is a case before the Supreme Court, Janus v. AFSCME, which could end “agency fees” and strip unions of much of their financing and power.

Many expect the outcome of that case to cripple unions and reduce their size – by some estimates, unions could see a 15 to 30 percent reduction in membership.

Despite SDEA’s contract victory this week, the Janus case was on at least one teacher’s mind.

“This is our last chance to get a good contract before members say, ‘I’m out. I’m not going to pay those fees anymore.’” Alpert said. “We’re going to lose some members, and likely some power at the bargaining table.”

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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