Daily Planet Staff
Berkeley teachers, parents and community supporters flooded the meeting chamber in Old City Hall on Wednesday night to demand that the school district raise teachers’ salaries.
“If we don’t have good, qualified, experienced teachers, then we don’t have a school district,” Berkeley Arts Magnet parent Kristin Prentice said during a rally before Wednesday night’s Berkeley Unified School Board meeting. “The school board needs to put teachers first.”
In the last two weeks, the contract battle between the Berkeley Federation of Teachers and the Berkeley Unified School District has intensified.
A week ago, the union announced that teachers would boycott nearly all events outside their “duty day” of six and half hours. That list of events includes all district-wide committee meetings, all school committee meetings and all conferences, as well as traditional campus events held as the school year draws to a close.
“Every principal in Berkeley, every school board member, every district office person knows that in order for the schools to operate at the high level that they do, we have to work over 30,000 hours a month, without pay, to keep the standard of excellence you say you want,” Jan Goodman, a King Middle School teacher and former Jefferson Elementary principal, told the school board. “If we worked to the very hours in our contract, the schools would fall apart.”
The “30,000 hours” figure Goodman cited came from a union survey conducted last month, when the BFT reported that Berkeley teachers spend that much time in an average month on such tasks as meetings and committees, curriculum preparation and staff collaboration - hours that could be considered unpaid overtime.
In early March, the district and the union reached an impasse in contract negotiations, particularly over the issue of increasing teachers’ salaries through a multiyear agreement. Teachers have a contract that continues through 2001, but the deal allows such issues as compensation to be reopened each year. The current negotiations began more than a year ago.
According to information provided by BFT, which came from state reports for the 1998-99 school year, only one Alameda County school district with more than 500 students has a lower salary range for new teachers. And every district in the county beats the BUSD for the most experienced teachers on the upper end of the salary range.
“This is not a strike. This is not business as usual, either,” BFT President Barry Fike told the school board Wednesday night. “Some may call it a prelude to a strike. It is a last, best effort to bring about a result that avoids a strike.”
Over the last 25 years, the union has held only two strikes: a one-day walkout in 1987, and a nearly six week strike in 1975.
Today, the BFT’s executive board will meet to discuss further steps the union can take, without moving to a strike vote. Late Wednesday night, Fike declined to discuss those options in detail, but based on conversations with other teachers earlier in the evening, it could include cutting back on grading student homework and other curriculum-related tasks.
After the BFT made its presentation and several teachers and parents spoke, some of the school board members offered their own comments – although the crowd had dwindled. The board’s comments mirrored their statements from the last number of months, including their support for teachers.
“I feel confident that we will be able to reach a good settlement at the end of this process,” said Board President Joaquin Rivera.
But before the board meeting began, Rivera sounded a little less optimistic when talking to a group of reporters.
“A lot of the money we have is restricted money, and I think at this point they have failed to show where the money will come for the raise,” he said. “So if they think the money’s there, I’m open to hear from them where it is.
“At this point, the board is really willing and anxious to be able to give the teachers a raise, so it’s not that the board is holding money back and that we don’t want to give it to the teachers. The board is working as hard as we can to try to come up with the money, so I don’t really think that this (demonstration) is going to expedite anything.”
On Wednesday, both sides met again with a mediator from the state Public Employment Relations Board, but no major progress was made. The third mediation session is scheduled for next week.
BFT also has filed an Unfair Labor Practices Charge with PERB over the district’s creation of a “Blue Ribbon Committee” to discuss budget restructuring. The union says the district shouldn’t have formed such a group before reaching a contract agreement with teachers. That committee meets again Tuesday.