Election Section

COMMENTARY Deal Fairly With Those Who Teach Your Children By PAM DREW

Friday May 13, 2005

Berkeley has always been a town which valued education at all levels. We show our support in myriad ways. With the possibility of a teacher strike in this community within the next six months, now is the time to support those whose everyday job is to teach our children. Whether we have school-age children currently or not, we recognize that the entire community has a stake in fostering literacy, numeracy, creativity, and citizenship among other good things in our young. Teachers who are valued by the community are teachers who project positive values in every word and gesture. Teachers pour their love into their teaching. They give the community their working lives and expect respect for their labors and reasonable compensation in return. 

In this fiscally tight era for all things benefiting the commonwealth, we are beginning to realize that starving government in general of taxes means starving the schools in particular. When you don’t take enough money in, the children, innocent and disenfranchised, do not get enough out. In the past three or four decades depriving the California public schools of enough state revenue to deliver excellent educational services has become institutionalized. Berkeley citizens turned to a parcel tax (BSEP) to supplement the meager statewide support for public education. This tax has been largely successful due to the vigilance and the active oversight of the BSEP committee but has created the unintended consequence of a sporadic power struggle over who can rightfully control the funds and over the question of supplementation of existing programs, rather than filling in for shortfalls due to inadequate state funding.  

Even so, the conservative world view has infected even the Berkeley public schools, despite BSEP, and the wolf is at the door. The wolf is not the parents, nor the teachers, nor the administration, nor is it Gov. Schwarzenegger per se. It is the erosion of trust among all these stakeholders augmented by the intrusion of the image-making industry. The crises caused by the conditions of scarcity imposed from above can be handled if agreement on actual revenue and actual expense can be arrived at. The hard part is separating the opportunistic spin from reality. If you think that a casual reading of the Berkeley Unified School District’s defense of their position allowing a 0 or 1.2 percent cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) for their teachers versus the union’s request for a 2 or 3 percent increase can equip you with the facts necessary to know who is right and who is wrong in the contract dispute, think again. 

The school district administration is a hierarchical bureaucracy headed by the superintendent. Most of the money decisions for the district are made on the basis of information provided to the school board by the bureaucracy even though the board works very hard to get a clear picture and votes accordingly. The entire present board has great budget acumen particularly residing in Ms. Riddle. However, even Ms. Riddle cannot invest the time to trace back all the data that is presented to her. Therefore, in the absence of real-time budgeting, and in the nearly complete reliance on central administration staff for input, decisions are necessarily influenced by the needs of image makers. It is the nature of the structure. The School Board, although constituted as an impartial independent group, act as the board of directors of the school district like the board of directors of a corporation. They, like those in any elected office, function as a combination of image makers, proponents of particular points of view, and impartial public servants working for the good of the whole. Although they themselves see themselves as entirely separate from the bureaucracy, the administration has such a lock on information that lay people on the board hardly have a chance from the beginning. There is often a conflict between fiscal responsibility, ambition, and charisma as you encounter in any CEO and board of directors. Leadership styles vary from Puritan frugality to flamboyant heedlessness to shrewd-eyed horse-trading. Any bureaucracy’s foremost priority is to protect itself, and the board’s first and foremost responsibility is to keep the district from state receivership and to promote the welfare of the district. Whatever image and priority regarding this welfare gains ascendancy in the boardmembers’ minds ultimately determines the outcome of this particular round of contract negotiation. If a fair cost of living adjustment for teachers wins out over whatever new project the district is undertaking, then teacher compensation and retention rates high in the priority list. A perfect example of the conflict between image and reality was the tenure of Jack McLaughlin, voted Superintendent of the Year when he was in Berkeley. The man was a PR genius. People loved him. After he left, the district found itself in a precarious financial position. Who knew? 

When Gov. Schwarzenegger passes the buck to the School Board and the School Board, acting on input from central administration staff, passes the buck to the teachers, then the union either takes it, negotiates a better settlement, or strikes. That is the union’s job. One intermediate step, work to rule, gives time for the mediation process to work or not. It gives time for all parties to plan for a strike and to contemplate the results of a strike. However, meanwhile, not knowing the true state of affairs with the budget continues for the public. Image makers elevate this not knowing to unknowability and outsiders have no other sources to rely on than what they read in the paper or get from their e-trees. No one in any group of stakeholders actually finds work-to-rule comfortable. Teachers historically want to teach their kids and to be left alone. They do not want to engage in PR campaigns; they do not want to add another layer of union meetings on top of the substantial number of meetings they must attend already. Their family values call for dinner at a normal hour and the money to buy the groceries to put on the table. 

Teaching, in the past, has been a profession by which a person could do meaningful work while maintaining access to middle class status. Teachers do not generally make off with compensation packages that are “fat” or unreasonable. The structuring of the salary schedule, an array of salaries arranged according to experience (steps) and education level (columns), with regular step and column raises gives predictability to the teachers’ finances so that they can plan their modest private budgets carefully, although they do not automatically get a raise every year as many people believe. Step raises come at intervals with experience within the district and column raises come as college courses beyond the baccalaureate and then the credential are completed. Besides, fully 25 percent of all BUSD certificated union members are hourly. These hourlies are not on the salary schedule. They get no column increases; mostly, if forced to remain hourly, they have absolute wage caps after one or two step raises with the exception of COLAs which have in the past been at a lower percent rate than their salary schedule colleagues. On the whole their compensation packages are probably less than 70 percent of the average salary schedule teacher’s compensation even for very senior teachers. Hourly teachers work at the Berkeley Adult School, Berkeley Independent Study, and as subs at almost all the Berkeley schools. 

The unpredictability of loss of wages due to a strike is the last thing hourly or salary schedule teachers want. Why strike? Partly to preserve the financial viability of teaching as a profession. The financial viability of teaching has already been eroded. If the teachers are the group required to absorb capricious governmental shortfalls, they will be shorted, again and again as long as legislators can still get re-elected by starving the end of the governmental food chain, the schools. When Gov. Schwarzenegger calls teachers and nurses special interests, he is partially correct. Teachers and nurses care about children and their welfare. They take special interest in children. Teachers and nurses seek to do meaningful work. Teachers and nurses do not share the traits of image makers either in the government nor in the corporations. They are not particularly aggressive. They are usually not Conan the Barbarian or body-builders in the traditional sense. They are mind-builders and body-builders in the non-traditional sense. They also care about their paychecks. This is neither shocking nor new. Teachers are supposed to care about their paychecks. If the schools are victimized everyone ultimately loses. If the top-down model of governance now firmly in place at BUSD victimizes the teachers, everyone loses. We are running neither corporations nor factories here but we are increasingly adopting the bureaucratic model of both. There is an alarming number of administrative vacancies at the moment. Those vacancies may be filled much like the present vacant federal judgeships will be filled although there is a renewed attempt to involve all stakeholders. There is increasing distance building between teachers and principals with central administration. Many of these conflicts boil down to “Who do you believe and what model do you endorse?” 

Another reason to strike is to cut through the thicket of obfuscation which constitutes district, state and national budgets currently. In the absence of a regular independent auditor function within the school district, we can only watch the fact-finding process unfold when the mediator between the union and the district declares impasse. Maybe some independently audited numbers will shed light on the situation then. Perhaps you yourself will get some answers. The question that continues to plague me is “Will we like the school system that remains?”  


Pam Drew is a 12-year math teacher at Berkeley Independent Study. She holds a bachelor’s degree in math (Phi Beta Kappa), a teaching credential from UC Berkeley, and a masters from UC Berkeley in education (math, science and technology). She received her last step raise eight years ago and has never received a column raise.