School Employees Call for Cost of Living Increase

By Judith Scherr
Friday April 13, 2007

The upbeat voice that greets callers to Longfellow Middle School belongs to Barret Donahue, school secretary with the Berkeley schools for 10 years—and with San Diego Unified for 10 years before that. 

In between phone calls, Donahue acts as assistant to the principal and vice principal, preparing the school budget and payroll, ordering supplies, coordinating field trips, keeping track of staff attendance. When she can’t complete the pile of work before her by the end of the day, she sometimes stays to complete it.  

“There’s no overtime or comp time,” she says. 

The skyrocketing cost of living has pushed school workers to demand what they say is theirs by right—a salary increase to meet the Bay Area’s exorbitant basic living costs as well as the completion of a study that places all the secretaries, clerks and instructional assistants correctly in their job classifications. 

The state gave a 5.92 percent increase in funding to the Berkeley Unified School District last year, but school secretaries and instructional assistants haven’t seen any of it—and teachers say they haven’t been given enough of it. 

Both teachers and other school workers regularly receive annual cost of living raises. “We thought we’d get it before October when the premiums went up for medical and dental,” said Tim Donnelly, president of the Berkeley Council of Classified Employees, American Federation of Teachers Local 6192, AFL-CIO. 

The teachers got a 4.8 percent cost of living adjustment (COLA) last year, but they’ve been given new information and now say they should be getting more money. 

The classified union has been in negotiations with the district over cost of living wage hikes since September of last year. In December, the union declared an impasse and a state mediator has come in to conduct negotiations in which the two sides talk to one another through a mediator. 

The classified employees have also asked for a reclassification study that is underway, according to school spokesperson Mark Coplan. This study, which hasn’t been done in a decade, determines what people do on the job and determines whether their job titles are correct.  

“Merit rules specify that all positions be reviewed every three years,” Donnelly said. “The district is way out of compliance on that.” Donnelly said he anticipates that two-thirds of the classified positions will be upgraded in the new study. 

Donahue said that part of the problem in getting the study done in a timely way is that both directors in the human resources department—one for classified (non-teaching) and one for certificated (teaching) employees—left the district at the end of the school year along with a number of employees in the department.  

Passing through the state increase to employees is not automatic, district spokesperson Mark Coplan told the Planet.  

“Everyone has rising costs; we have to meet the needs of the district and the employee needs,” Coplan said, citing, in particular, the increasing cost of fuel. “There’s not any money in the coffers,” Coplan said, noting the district has “just come out of financial straits.” 

Coplan added that while the budget is now balanced, there is no source of revenue to address the employees’ demands. There is some non-recurring money that can be used for one-time expenses, but not for ongoing salaries, he said. 

The teachers’ union, Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT), accepted a 4.8 percent COLA raise based on wrong information, BFT President Barry Fike told the Daily Planet. The union had believed BUSD had to take 20 percent of the state allocation increase to place in its reserve fund, but, after meeting with County Superintendent Sheila Jordan, Fike said he understood that parcel tax money can be used instead to make up the 20 percent for the reserve fund. 

“Berkeley is falling way behind,” Fike said, noting that only three districts in Alameda County have a lower salary scale than Berkeley—Hayward (currently on strike), the city of Alameda and Oakland. 

About 100 certificated and classified staff came to the school board meeting on Wednesday evening to call for adequate cost of living wage hikes. 

Donnelly addressed the board on the question of reclassification. “One Instructional Assistant has been doing attendant work since September that entitles her to a 10 percent salary differential,” he said. “We’ve been asking for that salary adjustment since November.” 

And Fike spoke on behalf of the teachers, reminding the board members that when they refused to reopen negotiations on the full COLA increase, “BFT responded by filing an unfair labor practice with PERB [Public Employment Relations Board]. And we are all here tonight as a further response to persuade, to express our anger and to respectfully request that you reconsider your position. Now.” 

“We are feeling devalued. Some BUSD employees are looking for other jobs,” Anita Johnson, a member of the classified employees union, told the board. “Some are working two jobs to support their families. I know the district has the money. But where is the money?” 


Riya Bhattacharjee contributed to this story. 


Photograph by Riya Bhattacharjee 

Berkeley school district workers demand pay raises to meet the basic cost of living in the Bay Area.