Page One

Berkeley Teachers to Pay For May Day Absences

By Suzanne La Barre
Tuesday May 16, 2006

The Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) is refusing to excuse the absences of teachers who joined nationwide rallies May 1, and is subsequently docking pay. 

Many BUSD teachers who missed school to attend the Day Without Immigrants Rally May 1 received letters saying they would not receive wages for that day, because their absences were “not district-sanctioned,” said Patricia Calvert, human resources director of certificated employees. 

The letters cite a provision in the teachers’ contract that says employees must make a request to leave in writing 24 hours in advance, for a specific, district-approved reason (protests are not included). Letters were sent out at the site level, though it is not clear whether all schools where teachers reported absent are sending letters.  

About 25 teachers from Berkeley High School, four from the Alternative School and 16 teachers and staff from Thousand Oaks Elementary School did not attend school May 1. The district’s spokesperson did not have a districtwide count available by press time. 

An average teacher in the school district will be dinged about $285, Calvert said. Teachers may also lose some retirement credits, though they can buy benefits back, she said. Those who don’t pay up will have to work an extra year, because their retirement is based on years of service. 

The Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT), the union representing Berkeley teachers, plans to fight the deductions, said BFT President Barry Fike. 

“This was teachers taking a personal leave day to go and protest and do something they feel is important to do,” he said. “It’s our opinion that the teachers did not violated the contract, rather the district violated the contract.” 

BUSD teacher contract language does not include a provision that allows pay suspension, unless administrators go through a rigorous process that mirrors teacher dismissal, Fike said. A more tenable course of action would have been for the district to send letters of reprimand, he said.  

Berkeley High School history teacher Jody Sokolower was shocked when she received her letter. 

“I teach a lot of students who are immigrants, and I teach history and I always try to teach students what’s right,” she said. “Most districts supported teachers and students. I really don’t understand why Berkeley isn’t.” 

A Berkeley High School vice principal approached Sokolower prior to May 1, and advised her not to walk out. She was told her leave was “not acceptable and there would be consequences,” she said, though she was not offered details.  

Ingrid Martinez, a Communication Arts School (CAS) English teacher, was also ambiguously warned by a BHS vice principal. Martinez has not yet received a letter, though she is expecting one soon.  

“I’m very, very disappointed that the school and the district couldn’t find a way to support teachers and immigrants,” she said, adding, “I wish they could find a way to make this right. This is not sending the right message.”  

Teachers joined more than 2,000 BUSD students who walked out May 1 to protest proposed federal policy aimed at tightening immigration laws. The bill, known as HR 4437, was up for debate in the senate at press time.