It had been a month since the last school board meeting, which meant it had been a month since parents and teachers had their last opportunity to demand that the board reach a contract agreement with the teachers union.
As they did on April 5, parents, teachers and students crowded into the board’s chambers in Old City Hall on Wednesday night. For over an hour, speakers blasted the school board for the situation and called on the district to provide more equitable wages for its teachers.
“Increase our salaries now,” one teacher said, “put us at the top priority of the budget, and then, if we find some more money, we can pay administrators to shuffle papers around their offices, and we can fund the things in the Berkeley school district that are not as essential as teachers.”
But Director Shirley Issel bristled at the implication – and open assertion – that the board doesn’t care about teachers.
“I think there is a disturbing amount of anger and contempt toward the board and the administration,” she said. “People have the idea that we do not understand the consequences of low teacher pay.”
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 the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, 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.
Some speakers warned the board that if a contract agreement is not reached soon, it could come back to haunt them in the fall, when President Joaquin Rivera and Director Pamela Doolan are up for re-election. One speaker threatened a recall of the whole board.
“We’ve heard about your commitments, your wishes, your intents,” said parent Lincoln Malek. “Unfortunately, that’s all meaningless rhetoric. It’s meaningless because it doesn’t put food on the table. What puts food on the table is a paycheck, and paychecks are determined by contract language.”
But after the public comment period, Rivera made his most expansive comments to date on the contract standoff. He said that after next Tuesday’s mediation session between the BUSD and the BFT, it is possible that the two sides will release more information on the negotiations, including information on the deals both sides are offering.
After leaving the meeting, BFT President Barry Fike told supporters, “Don’t hold your breath.” He said the union has been willing to release much of that information for some time.
A group of parents is calling for students to be kept at home on May 31 because of the contract impasse.