Teachers union wants equitable settlement
During last week’s Mammoth Unified School District Board of Education meeting, it was revealed that closing out the books on the fiscal year 2011-2012 budget revealed a reserve of about 40%, an 11% increase over the expected 29%. The figure also included about $100,000 in extra cash on hand from found accounts receivable due to MUSD.
While the news was certainly good, no one in the room that night was more interested in its implications than Mammoth Education Association (MEA) union lead negotiator Cheryl Hart. She listened as the Board was advised (yet again) of 3-year budget projections issued by Interim Finance Director Michele McClowry, including an admonition that deficit spending has to be reigned in, or MUSD will risk insolvency by 2014-2015.
During McClowry’s presentation, Hart could be seen writing copious notes, and trying to contain the steam billowing from her ears. The timing of the revelation was certainly inauspicious, coming just on the heels of four classified positions being laid off only two weeks earlier, with more layoffs potentially waiting in the wings.
MEA represents certificated teachers and counselors, the District’s largest representative entity. The District and MEA reached an impasse in their discussions two weeks ago that has led to mediation to try to get negotiation going again, which Hart hopes will be based more on what she called realistic figures. While they aren’t at liberty to discuss specifics regarding the talks, Hart and union president Michelle Quirsfeld, both teachers, said they are concerned that too much budget cutting and austerity is being done on the backs of staff and students.
“We’re not happy at having to go to impasse,” Hart said. “On the other hand, we think MUSD’s numbers are unreliable. The reserve has only increased since negotiations began on May 15th, and that’s good news. We’re happy to hear that. MUSD’s reserve is now at 40% with a certified budget, and that puts [MUSD] in a good position, well above the state mandated 3%.”
Hart’s main issue with the District administration goes to recent calls for a “fair share” deal. “We want a fair settlement, we want the District fiscally solvent,” Hart said. “But the 3-year projections are just that: projections, based on an assumption that nothing will change for 3 years, which isn’t realistic.” Overnight, at last Thursday’s BOE meeting, things changed by 11%, she noted.
Hart and Quirsfeld aren’t convinced that MUSD is sharing the burden, pointing to administration proposals such as cuts in staffing, proposed benefit caps and cutting school for students, while continuing to deficit spend on new programs, consultant fees and lawyers. “[MEA] is willing to work with them to find a solution,” both stated. “Suggestions by MEA have already been made which have been rejected by the District.”
On a related note, Hart also suggested the District revisit its policy toward items such as allowing travel, attending conferences, and raises and living allowances, including those for the Superintendent. “That doesn’t sound to us like a district that’s sharing the burden, and adequately addressing deficit spending,” they said.
Adding to Hart’s consternation is her take that MUSD uses a lawyer to negotiate for the District, which is paying legal fees to a SoCal law firm. Not many Districts in the area use attorneys to negotiate for them. “At the very least we would like someone who has a vested interest in the District and has first-hand experience with the issues sitting down at the table with us,” Hart related.
One thing that MEA and MUSD can both agree on is supporting Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax increase ballot initiative package in November, which Hart said that MEA plans to get behind. “It’s important that Proposition 30 passes to help stabilize the state budget and education.” (A recent poll by PACE/USC Rossier School of Education shows the initiative with a 55 to 36 percent lead.)
Hart said the MEA is aware that new standards are being handed down for core curriculum and new technology, and recognizes the BOE is in a tough position, given the economic hard times at the federal, state and local level. She does, however, want any responses to be balanced, based on living within the District’s means.
“Priorities must be set to maintain quality education,” Hart asserted. “Teachers are here because we want to teach kids, that’s our top priority. In the end, new programs and technology don’t teach kids, teachers do.”
Quirsfeld agreed, quipping good-naturedly that she still loves using glue and construction paper in her elementary school classes. “The thing about us as teachers is we love the job. It’s obvious when you walk into a classroom, we love interacting with the students and collaborating with our peers,” she explained. “[Negotiations] are a sidebar of things you can’t exactly ignore, but when we walk in the door, we’re here for the kids.
“Our test scores speak to that, many of them have been going up every year for the last few years. And that’s without access to resources and infrastructure found in major metropolitan districts. That’s real teaching.”
Hart praised parental and community support. “The community sees these successes and they’ve been very supportive, it’s very exciting and worth celebrating,” Hart opined. “That’s important for us to continue to compete with and challenge ourselves to always do better.”
Meanwhile, she would like to see more focus on real numbers during talks with the District. “Because the numbers keep changing, it’s hard for us to know the District’s real situation, and keep in mind the numbers for two years out are still only projections,” Hart indicated. “The new reserve revelations give us reason to pause. Why should we be forced into permanent solutions to temporary problems?
“We hear about taking care of the employees and fair share deals, and those are both ideal goals, but ‘fair share’ goes both directions.”