Berkeley teachers took their increasingly rancorous contract dispute back to the Berkeley Unified School District board meeting Wednesday night, filling the Old City Hall Council chambers with union members and supporters chanting “Fair Contract Now!”
Berkeley Federation of Teachers President Barry Fike admonished board directors to “put down that draconian contract proposal you are holding over your head and threatening to impose on us.”
He said that BFT members “of course don’t want to strike, but if you leave us with no other choice we will certainly have to.”
Several demonstrators balled up leaflets outlining the district contract position that had been laid out on the seats in the council chamber for the public, derisively tossing them into the center aisle toward the directors.
Berkeley teachers and Berkeley Unified officials are in the midst of state-mediated contract talks, with teachers demanding compensation increases and the district insisting that such increases are not possible without harming educational programs.
The next mediation session is scheduled for April 21.
In biting remarks during Wednesday night’s public comment period, Cynthia Allman, a first-grade teacher at Malcolm X Elementary, compared the district administration and board members to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has been under fire from teachers for cutting support to education.
“To us, you look like Arnold,” Allman said. “You look like his local surrogates. Like him, you go after retirees. You attack our benefits. You minimize our value.”
The two sides in the contract dispute sparred over how much—if any—district money is available for teacher raises in next year’s budget. Fike said that the district is expected to receive a 4 percent increase in state money next year.
“How the board chooses to spend that 4 percent increase is at the heart of this dispute,” he said. Fike said that after district-identified expenses are deducted from this expected increase, “the district will still have roughly $2 million in new money. That’s money that can go to cost of living increases to teachers.”
Superintendent Michele Lawrence agreed that the district will receive increased state money next year, but she said that “increased expenses will eat up those revenues overnight.”
Lawrence added that a teacher pay raise is “well-deserved, but we have to look for alternative and creative ways to balance the budget while compensating our employees.”
All six board directors commented on the union charges.
Director Shirley Issel criticized the teachers for “staying outside and chanting while we’re being told the fiscal situation of the district. You don’t want to know the facts. We’re being portrayed as a bad guy in a movie, but there aren’t any bad guys here. It’s just a bad situation.”
Director Joaquin Rivera said that fiscal responsibility had to come first, before any possible raises.
“We’re on the brink of being taken over by the state if we don’t balance the budget,” he said. “One of my top priorities is to make sure this district doesn’t go bankrupt.”
And calling comparisons of the board and superintendent to Schwarzenegger “deplorable,” Lawrence told teachers that “if you don’t believe the district’s budget figures, look at the reports of our auditor, or the state controller’s office, or [the Fiscal Crisis Management Assistance Team], or the county office of education. Cuts are inevitable, whether or not we give compensation increases. It can’t be ‘don’t cut here, and give us this.’”
Most of the union demonstrators left the meeting before the board directors’ and superintendent’s remarks.
Berkeley PTA Council President Roia Ferrazares told meeting participants she was “urging both sides to please come to a conclusion because the children are suffering. A strike would be very bad for this district.”
Earlier, some 250 teachers and their supporters rallied in front of Old City Hall, carrying banners reading “We Support Our Teachers,” “Hands Off Our Health Care,” and “Give Us Our Fair Chair.” To the sounds of drivers passing by on Martin Luther King Jr. Way honking their horns in solidarity, demonstrators spoke in support of the ongoing teacher “work to rule” action which has ended homework and paralyzed after-school activities in some schools.
Willard sixth grade teacher Sharon Arthur told the crowd, “I love my job and I love to do it, but I refuse to be trampled on by my district and by my state.”
While teachers used Wednesday’s meeting to rally support for raises, the district administration spent the time highlighting BUSD’s ongoing financial challenges. After submitting a budget ruled “positive” by the county education office for the first time in several years, BUSD quickly slipped back to a “qualified” status in its first interim budget report this year after expected state revenue did not come through. A “qualified” status means that while the budget is balanced this year, a deficit has been projected for the following years.
At Board President Nancy Riddle’s request, Alameda County School Superintendent Sheila Jordan and Associate Superintendent Carlene Naylor spoke on BUSD’s budget situation in light of tightening state fiscal reporting requirements.
BUSD “definitely has a deficit spending pattern that needs to be addressed,” Naylor said. She added that while Berkeley has been operating for the past year under state law that relaxed the reserve requirement, “you must restore your reserve to 3 percent when you submit your budget for 2005-06.”
And in a notice that the district needs to be careful in its contract negotiations, Jordan said that last year’s school administration law AB2756 “compels the county office to enter the situation earlier to ensure any significant revenue expenditure called for in a new contract can be afforded.”
Board members also considered the superintendent’s proposed list of budget cuts for the 2005-06 budget, approving further study without committing themselves one way or the other. Included in the proposed list was reduction in the high school athletic program, closing the Community Theater to outside use while a year-long financial study is done, expanding the walk-to-school zone beyond its present one mile, and reducing the number of high school campus security officers and classroom instructional assistants.
Lawrence called all of the proposed cuts “intolerable,” and Board Vice President Terry Doran said he wanted to “caution the public that these are just suggestions. Nothing has been decided. We just want staff to cost these things out to see if any of them are cost effective.”›