On Black (Balloon) Tuesday, Teachers, LCUSD Deadlocked

The small army of La Cañada Unified School District’s teachers at Tuesday’s Governing Board meeting, clad in their matching blue T-shirts and toting black balloons, signaled that no accord had been reached between the teachers’ association and the district.
The two sides, which are wrestling over teacher compensation, met for the 10th time Monday.
In his remarks at the start of Tuesday’s meeting, Governing Board President David Sagal characterized negotiations as maintaining “an atmosphere of cooperation, trust and mutual respect.”
But members of the La Cañada Teachers Association offered a different perspective. “We are tired and frustrated, but we will not waver,” said Tracey Calhoun, a high school English teacher who has been involved with bargaining. “We have learned the value of standing up for ourselves.”
Both sides say they want to bring LCUSD teacher pay more in line, long-term, with four comparable school districts: Manhattan Beach, Palos Verdes, San Marino and South Pasadena.
The district has presented an offer that closes the gap but still leaves LCUSD’s teachers among the lowest paid of that group. The district’s proposed restructure would pay teachers in their 25th year a district-maximum of $97,851 — below the maximum possible at all but one of those comparable districts.
“Is last good enough?” asked LCTA President Mandy Redfern when she took to the podium during public comment.
“No!” came the resounding response from her colleagues.
Calhoun said LCTA presented the district with a counter-offer that she said would satisfy teacher demands and would cost the district just $300,000 more than what already has been offered.
“Surely,” she said, “this is cause to dip into a very healthy savings to preserve the health and morale of the human element of education.”
Calhoun said the LCTA suggested that the district reconsider tapping into its $1.85 million lease-interruption insurance funds and agree to language stating that teachers would receive any additional funds from Gov. Jerry Brown’s revised budget later this month.
She said the district rejected those ideas but acknowledged that it had agreed to suspend the practice of automatically moving funds into a deferred maintenance account, which Superintendent Wendy Sinnette emailed Wednesday would free up about $350,000 annually.
On Tuesday, Calhoun also mentioned the district’s agreeing to end a relationship with an unpopular outside professional development consultant (which saves about $150,000, Sinnette said).
Sagal touched on those and other budgetary shifts, which he said also included incorporating a flat enrollment assumption into next year’s budget. That means planning for permit applicants to cover an anticipated decline of 50 students, which will add $350,000 in student-based funding revenue. The district also discontinued a consultation contract for mediation support services, for a savings of $16,000, Sinnette wrote.
Board President Sagal also sought to highlight some of the limiting differences between LCUSD and its comparable districts.
“These comparable districts have been selected because they’re smaller, high-performing districts in Los Angeles County,” Sagal said. “And on that front, we definitely have a lot in common. The problem is no two districts are the same.”
He pointed out that Palos Verdes, which he said receives more than $9 million more in supplemental dollars from the state, is almost three times the size of LCUSD, allowing it to operate with economy of scale that LCUSD can’t.
He mentioned the larger class sizes in Manhattan Beach and South Pasadena. Sagal said for Manhattan Beach’s student-teacher ratio to match LCUSD’s, it would have to hire 15 more teachers, and that while South Pasadena has a teaching force that is 8% larger than LCUSD’s, it has 16% more students.
San Marino is the only district among the bunch that is smaller, Sagal said, but it receives more than double the supplemental state funds that LCUSD does, and is the beneficiary of a heftier parcel tax that brings in $5.3 million a year, or $1,000 more per student.
Octavia Thuss, a parent of three boys going to LCUSD schools, listened to these figures and stood to ask fellow parents if they might not do more to help fund the district. “Have we squeezed all the water from the stone?” she asked.
Theater teacher Justin Eick told board members that agreeing to pay LCUSD’s teachers what they are asking would be a good deal.
“Look at the number of hours we put in outside of normal hours …,” said Eick, whose students put on eight productions per year. That is double the number of productions he oversaw at Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and six more than occur at South Pasadena.
“And if you compare the number of hours we put in, can you imagine what the academic teachers are doing?” Eick added. “We work super, super hard.”
Screenwriter Craig Mazin, whose children attend or attended LCUSD schools and who formerly served as president of the La Cañada Flintridge Educational Foundation, offered a “word of caution” to those on both sides of the bargaining table.
“In 2005, as a board member of the Writers Guild [of America], I had a front-row seat as the union began to implement a campaign to publicly pressure management,” he said. “And management began its own public campaign in response. I learned a very important lesson: Sometimes strategies work too well.
“Public statements and actions intended to strengthen your hand, whether labor or management, instead can take on a life of their own, and things said and done cannot be left outside of the negotiating room. The well can become poisoned and the ultimate goal in a negotiation — which is always to get to ‘yes’ — is made impossible.
“In my experience, both sides lost control of their narratives. … The negotiations never had a chance and a ruinous strike occurred.”
One speaker later, Calhoun concluded her comments by telling those seated at the dais: “You have money and you have the choice to value us, so please lift this black cloud now and show the staff that we are worth more than last place.”
With that, all of the teachers released their black balloons to float to the ceiling, and all but a handful of them turned to leave.
As the teachers filed out, LCFEF Executive Director Deborah Weirick stood for her turn at the podium to weigh in on the “monumental task.”
“We all want more and better salaries for teachers — who wouldn’t?” said Weirick, who for the past four years has headed a foundation that has, for each of the past five years, contributed more than $2 million to the district.
“But all of you on this dais are at the top of the food chain of the do-ers in this community,” she added. “I don’t want the community to lose sight of that fact that you are trying to find a solution to a chronic and complex problem of not enough resources to do everything that our kids, schools and teachers desire.”

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