BUSD Teachers’ Union Demands Apology for Pay Dock Threat

By Suzanne La Barre
Friday June 23, 2006

The Berkeley teachers’ union is urging the school district to apologize for threatening to dock the pay of teachers who skipped school last month to attend protests. 

A number of Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) teachers received letters stating that their salaries would be dinged for skipping classes May 1, the day of immigrant rights rallies nationwide. Berkeley teachers have since received paychecks for the month of May, and no deductions were made. It is unclear, however, whether the initial threat has been rescinded or will be carried out in the future.  

“There’s been no decision made as to how we’re going to handle the situation,” said Superintendent Michele Lawrence. 

Now, the Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT), the union representing 700 teachers, counselors, librarians and others, is seeking a formal admission of error.  

“We think the best way for them to resolve this at this point is to send teachers an apology,” said BFT President Barry Fike in an interview earlier this month. 

The letters state that missing school to attend immigrant rights rallies does not adhere to terms of the union’s contract. Specifically, they cite a provision, which stipulates that a request for leave must be made in writing on discrete grounds, such as a death in the family, a wedding or a court appearance. 

Fike says even if teachers failed to comply with standard absence reporting procedures, the district does not, per the contract, have license to cut pay. The average teacher would lose about $285, and could miss out on retirement credits.  

Letters went out at the site level and were signed by principals and vice principals on school letterhead, but the text in the various missives is similar, Fike said, leading him to speculate that central administration spearheaded the effort and school administrators followed along. 

The district, however, is not accepting responsibility. On Wednesday, Lawrence said she did not know where the letters originated. 

Almost 80 teachers missed school May 1, though how many reported absent to attend rallies is not known, Lawrence said. Also a mystery is why some employees who were absent received letters whereas others did not. 

Berkeley High School English teacher Ingrid Martinez believes employees with Latino surnames were targeted, pointing out that two white teachers she knows attended protests, but were not disciplined. 

“This is a strong negative message they’re sending about what happens when you stand up for yourself,” she said. “And this is Berkeley? I’m shocked …I would love a public apology and acknowledgement that this was not the right way to go about it.” 

Lawrence adamantly denies claims of racial profiling. “That is absolutely and totally false,” she said. 

Berkeley High history and English teacher Tim Moellering, who is not Latino, received a letter after admitting to a vice principal that he skipped school to attend a protest at UC Berkeley. Though he called the threatening memo “a really stupid idea,” he said he’s not taking it to heart. 

“I don’t consider it personal in any way,” he said. “I don’t think that there is anyone who is opposed to the (immigrants’ rights) cause, I think it’s a matter of the superintendent (and her staff) trying to show that they’re in charge.”