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Letter to the Editor: AEA President on Teachers' Contract

Gray Harris, president of the Alameda Education Association, writes about the tentative agreement voted down by Alameda teachers

Dear Alameda Community Members,

No one can remember a time when Alameda's teachers have ever rejected a Tentatively Agreed upon contract (TA). It is important to explain how this occurred.

AUSD refuses to bargain. Approximately one year ago, AUSD proposed that teachers should accept permanent increases to work load without any increase to compensation. That proposal did not change despite the many efforts made by AEA to reach agreement. When mediation failed the first time, we found ourselves on a path to Fact Finding and faced with the likelihood of a strike. Teachers do not want to go on strike so AEA contacted a different mediator and asked AUSD to return to mediation in another effort to reach agreement.

I presented the membership with the TA that was negotiated over 58 hours of mediation and I felt that it was the best deal we could hope to achieve in the current climate. It is important to understand that this TA was not created within the regular bargaining process where teachers can be updated and consulted  during the creation of the agreement. Instead it was created under strict confidentiality, which the Superintendent has decided to disregard in her recent letter, and the teachers were not able to consider the various compromises until agreement was reached.

When the teachers did finally see the length of AUSD's demands, they decided that they could not accept the contract. The vote was a clear majority, with nearly three no votes to every one yes vote.

I’d like to present four reasons that led to this outcome.

First is the issue of collaboration. The Superintendent failed to mention in her recent letter that students would have lost 45 minutes of instructional time per week. Some grade levels did not have 45 minutes beyond the state requirements, so those students would have lost recess time. Also, the collaboration schedule would have required parents to either pick up their students 45 minutes earlier or arrive 45 minutes later.

Second requires a brief explanation of Labor Relations. Past Practice, or what the parties have always done, controls interpretation of contract language and also controls what happens in the absence of contact language. The issues of Academic Freedom, Complaints, and Calendar were all governed by Past Practice until Superintendent Vital arrived in Alameda. In the years since she was hired by the School Board, our contract has been reinterpreted, and misinterpreted with a disregard of Past Practice. This has lead to 38 grievances during Vital's reign compared to 6 during the three previous years combined.

While the Superintendent's smooth letters to the community may lead one to believe that the District made concessions, the truth is that teachers feel that the language in the TA is actually worse for educators than the absence of language. For example, one Past Practice is the way the teachers have made calendars and then voted to select the calendar. Two years ago, the School Board began vetoing the selected calendar in clear violation of Past Practice. If the rules governing labor relations are going to be ignored, then we must revert to the law which provides teachers the right to negotiate a calendar. If AUSD wanted to bargain a calendar, we would have one now.

Third is the issue of salary. While teachers gave up eight days of pay (4.5% of salary) during the 2010-2011 school year and then fought alongside AUSD and parents to help pass Measure A, there was no reimbursement for any of that lost pay. Teachers did the same work last year in less time with a pay cut.

While the TA provides a one-time payment, equal to 1% of teacher’s salary, that doesn’t affect recurring salary. Since it’s a bonus, it can be taxed at a higher rate. The 1.5% is not guaranteed as ongoing salary and does nothing to change the fact that Alameda's teachers are nearly the lowest paid in the county.

The district is holding a significant amount of money in reserves, above and beyond the requirements. AUSD also has received the first payment from Measure A. Combined, this was seemingly enough to cause the School Board to increase the compensation to the Superintendent and her executive cabinet last August. Superintendent Vital's four-year contract is worth approximately $1 million which is roughly the same value as a 3% payment to all teachers. The teachers don’t see the equity in this and they don't see the fairness in teachers’ salaries being tied directly to state funding while the AUSD executive cabinets’ are not. Healthcare costs increased by approximately 12% this year and a teacher pays approximately $1,000/month out of pocket for a family insurance plan.

Fourth is the issue of class size. Small class size is better for students. The District says that 20:1 in K-3 costs only $500,000 more than 25:1. The Superintendent told every teacher in this district that Measure A was going to allow us to revert from 25 to 24 to 23 to 22 to 21 and back to 20. That was always the intent of the MOU because it is the best thing for our students.

What this all boils down to is an issue of trust. Some teachers may have voted no because of the money, but the majority of them voted no because of all the other issues. The teachers do not trust this administration and they do not like the direction our district is heading. The Superintendent can continue to paint teachers in a negative light but eventually the community will see the truth.  We will continue to move forward on successor negotiations, striving to reach an agreement that Alameda teachers can ratify.

Gray Harris
Alameda Education Association President

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dave April 14, 2012 at 12:18 AM
As has been repeatedly explained, the anonymous complaint problem isn't a problem at all, it is an improvement over the prior contract when ALL anaonymous complaints were investigated. Can one assume that the AEA's negotiators were/are aware of this (since they, ya know, AGREED to it)? And if that is a safe assumption it leaves a very big question: why does so much of the rank & file fail to understand it? As for collaboration, I have read many postings that it's disliked, but have yet to read one with a reasonable explanation why. It's flummoxing that an agreement would be tanked over a non-issue and an issue nobody can explain.
Mark Irons April 14, 2012 at 12:51 AM
dave, from TA just voted down down: "20.03.07 Complaints that are anonymous and are not significant as defined above will not be investigated". The defined above part is that which "may lead to discipline of a member." That is mighty vague, but I assume the list of infractions warranting discipline are listed elsewhere. I speak for my own interpretation: I believe the rub has to do with who defines "significant". That's the trust thing again. It's irrelevant IF the previous contract allowed all anonymous complaints to go in the file, if the dispute were around fairness of anonymous complaints being entertained at all. But more than that I just read 20.03 of previous contract and the word "anonymous" does not appear. I've heard your claim before from a lawyer, but they didn't cite chapter and verse. If you know of other text which specifies that "all anonymous complaints will be investigated", please redirect me. best regards
Tina Koeberl April 14, 2012 at 01:00 AM
Pull out my a$$? Point taken. My numbers come from the salary schedules are from public record. I happen to be a special education teacher at AHS. Thus, I personally know the people, positions and situations I mentioned. I would love to meet up and have coffee. I am ready to take this relationship to a new level. I know some very dear people on both sides of this issue, I am sure they would love to have a healthy face to face conversation, maybe a "person behind the post" meet and greet. Are you up for that? This is not challenge or joke, it's an invitation.
dave April 14, 2012 at 01:21 AM
Were the AEA negotators unable or unwilling to explain to the members?
Mark Irons April 15, 2012 at 06:59 PM
Helen, I'm going to go out on a limb and say the language of the existing contract is ambiguous ( to me) with regard to anonymous complaints because it makes no specific reference to them. I understand the official term is that the contract is "silent" on such complaints. This begs the question, did the district actually have the contractual right you claim, to take action on any anonymous complaints, let alone ALL of them? and therefore, is Past Practice ( pre-Vital) rendered moot? I say no. You say it "doesn't matter". I only understand the basic concept of past practice and as a lay person I feel like I'm on thin ice to weigh in too heavily on any of this, but in order for us to even attempt to reach consensus I think it requires the effort to get out of comfort zone and try to understand opposing points of view from the perspective of those who hold them. Weeding out "dead wood" is both important and one of the most convoluted area of administrative authority. I'll speculate here, that to approach that task effectively requires a much higher level of trust than anything this administration has attempted to cultivate, and a much more deft hand at handling teachers. Maybe teachers grew complacent under lax oversight from previous administration, perhaps without even knowing it, but I can't quite see the leap in the number of grievances as being due purely to teachers entrenched behind union protectionism.

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