Contract Talks Stall Between Teachers, District

Contract talks between the Southern Humboldt Teachers Association and the Southern Humboldt Unified School District have stalled over the extent to which the district should cover teachers’ health care benefits, negotiators on both sides said last week.

There are also differences over how much of a salary increase, known as a cost of living adjustment, or COLA, teachers should receive. And the two sides are making different assertions about the amount of money the district has in reserve, with teachers claiming that it’s greater than the district is saying.

That’s relevant since a sizeable reserve would, presumably, make salary and benefit increases more doable.

“The district is not moving and we’re not moving,” was the way SHTA negotiator Jennifer Kubik summed things up.

In accord with standard collective bargaining practice, the two sides made public, or “sunshined,” their initial proposals earlier this year. So far, two negotiating sessions have taken place, both last month.

SHTA represents roughly 80 percent of the district’s 43 teachers. The last time a collective bargaining agreement between the district and teachers was struck was back in 2012. A three-year accord, it expired at the end of June last year — which means that in the school year that’s now coming to a close, teachers worked under the terms of an expired contract.

When asked, Laura Laméris, the lead negotiator for SoHum teachers, said that such a situation is not unusual.

Complicating the current dispute over the health care benefits is the fact that the district’s health care cap — in other words, the amount the district pays per employee per year — is not the same for all categories of workers at the district.

For example, the cap for the “unrepresented” group, meaning those employees who don’t belong to a union, is $15,518. This group is small, numbering 10 to 12 individuals. It includes school principals, office staff at the district’s Miranda headquarters and supervisors of district departments, such as the Transportation Department.

In comparison, the cap for the teaching or “certificated” staff stands at $11,479, or $4,000 less.

The cap for a third group known as “classified” employees — such as bus drivers, secretaries and classroom aides — was recently raised to $12,690, making their cap roughly $1,200 higher than the teachers’ cap. The increase is part of a new contract agreement between the district and the classified workers’ union representative, the California School Employees Association.

An Illegal Disclosure?

According to SHTA President Theresa Martin, the district in the May negotiating sessions proposed increasing the teachers’ health care cap by $1,200, which would match, at least approximately, what classified workers are now getting. The district also offered a one percent salary increase, she said.

“We said no,” related Martin, who in a June 2 email informed her fellow teachers of the situation.

When asked to confirm the offers in an interview Friday, the district’s lead negotiator, Superintendent Catherine Scott, said that disclosing such information was “illegal.”

“I can’t discuss the negotiations,” she said, implying that anyone who did so — like Martin — was breaking the law.

Contrary to Scott’s assertion, Lathe Gill of the California Teachers Association said: “There’s nothing wrong with telling people what the district has offered.”

“The only stage in the [collective bargaining] process with strict confidentiality rules is mediation,” he related. Gill, who is based in Eureka, provides assistance to SHTA on bargaining and employee relations issues.

“It’s possible for the [two] sides to have ground rules that they agree to [ahead of time] that the things discussed will be confidential,” he went on. “But as far as I know [SHTA and the district] didn’t negotiate any ground rules.”

“I wouldn’t have agreed to a ground rule to keep negotiations confidential had it been proposed,” added Gill, who sits at the bargaining table with teachers during negotiations.

When asked, Laméris on Sunday said: “No, the district didn’t set up any ground rules. We did not agree we would keep everything hush-hush until [a contract accord] was decided.”

Gill said that if Scott truly feels that disclosing the district’s offers was illegal, “her remedy would be to file an unfair labor practice charge with the Public Employee Relations Board.”

A Matter of Fairness

While the dispute over the health care cap came up during the public comment portion of last Thursday’s school board meeting, it was not something that the school board took any action on or even discussed.

The lack of a response was presumably something of a disappointment to the teacher’s union. Prior to the meeting, Martin had said in an interview: “We want to make sure they’re educated [about the disparity] and about how low [our cap is] compared to other districts in the county.”

This last comment was a reference to the fact that the district ranks 27th out of 32 school districts in Humboldt and Del Norte counties when it comes to the level of the health care cap for its teachers. “If we got what we wanted [in terms of a health care cap], we would be seventh,” Martin said in the interview. “That’s where we want to be to attract top-quality teachers. You want to be in the top quarter.”

“Only five districts give their teachers less money for health benefits. That is outrageous!” Martin added in a letter she wrote to the school board.

In separate interviews the day after the meeting, Scott and school board member Barbara Lindsay, who sat in on one of the negotiating sessions last month, said the district’s low ranking was misleading.

“Some of the districts [listed] are larger and better able to absorb high insurance rates. So it’s apples and oranges,” Lindsay explained.

But the district’s low ranking is just one of the bones of contention in the negotiations over the health care cap. The other is the galling reality that teachers are significantly below their co-workers at the district when it comes to how much the district ponies up for their health care coverage.

To Kubik, the issue boils down to a simple matter of fairness.

“If the district is unified in its vision” — a reference to the Unified in Our Purpose slogan on the district’s website — “one would hope it would be unified in its benefits as well,” she said in a written statement.

Claire Piccineilli, a teacher at Redway school for some 26 years who currently teaches first grade, also stressed the issue of fairness in a written statement of her own that she made available at the school board meeting.

“I am not in support of a situation where a part of the stakeholders in our district receive benefits that are not available to the rest of the stakeholders,” she said in reference to the disparity in the health care cap.

“One thing that I think is not debatable is equity in terms of health care,” she continued. “We are all human beings and we are all deserving of the same piece of pie in this area. No one group should receive a better deal than another group.”

Timing Is Key

Lindsay said the reason the cap for teachers is lower has to do with the fact that their most recent collective bargaining agreement dates to 2012. Health care rates have continued to climb since then, making a cap that was agreed on four years ago less in line with today’s financial realities.

“It is that way because [SHTA] settled for a fairly low cap,” she explained. “At the time it seemed high. Who would have thought that [health] insurance would go up as much as it has?”

That the disparity is simply due to chronology doesn’t explain, however, why the district gave the unrepresented group a higher cap a year ago than it is giving classified workers in the just concluded agreement. Nor does it explain last month’s offer to the teachers to match the classified workers’ cap rather than the cap enjoyed by the unrepresented staff.

Scott said that for a number of years the unrepresented staff received the short end of the stick in terms of salary increases compared to teachers.

“During the recession” — in other words, from roughly 2008 to 2015 — “the unrepresented [employees] received no raises to their salaries at all. Nothing for six to seven years. During that time the teachers’ union [employees] continued to get raises.”

Martin countered by pointing out that some in the unrepresented category, such as school principals, do better than teachers when it comes to money. “The new South Fork principal is making $90,000,” she said, referring to Jeff Landry, who will take over the reins at the high school from Jim Stewart on July 1.

Scott made another point about unrepresented staff. She said that until relatively recently, they didn’t have a cap on their health insurance benefits — meaning that they had a better deal in that regard than they do today.

“The district paid for their insurance,” Scott said.

Things changed a year ago, when the unrepresented employees “agreed to a cap and got a raise for the first time in many years.”

Bambi Henderson, director of fiscal services for the district and a member of the unrepresented category, said Monday that the unrepresented workers agreed to a cap because, “We felt it was the right thing to do because the rest of the unit had a cap.”

When asked how the unrepresented group bargains given that it doesn’t belong to a union, Henderson explained the procedure this way: “We all meet and agree on what we want to ask for, and then we have a speaker for the group go to the superintendent and present what we are asking for and it goes from there.”

Once a proposed agreement has been hammered out, Henderson said the unrepresented workers then vote on whether to accept or reject.

In response to the teachers’ call for equity, Lindsay said: “It would be nice if everyone was the same. But with [different] bargaining groups [representing different categories of workers] there are always discrepancies.”

Martin, for her part, offered a lament. “In the past, teachers didn’t make much money but they had great health care benefits. We used to not pay anything until the district enforced the cap. Now we’re having to pay more out of pocket.”