Lucia Mar teachers eye strike as final negotiations near

A neutral third party is expected to give the Lucia Mar Unified School District and its teachers union a report sometime in the next week on how they could reach a compromise over teachers’ salaries.

The two sides are then expected to meet for a final negotiation session. If they can’t reach an agreement, a strike looms.

Members of the Lucia Mar Unified Teachers Association, which represents about 580 teachers in the county’s largest school district, voted Thursday to authorize the union’s executive board to call for a strike, LMUTA President Donna Kandel said Saturday. A strike would take place once both sides have exhausted all negotiation attempts.

Also on Thursday, the union and the California Teachers Association filed unfair labor practice charges with the state Public Employment Relations Board against the district, according to a LMUTA news release.

Lucia Mar teachers have been working without a contract since their last one expired June 30. They have been seeking a 10 percent raise, retroactive to the 2014-15 school year. 

Throughout most of the negotiations, the district has held firm at a 2 percent offer for the 2014-15 school year. Following mediation on Wednesday, however, Superintendent Jim Hogeboom said the district upped its offer to 6 percent over three school years: a 2 percent raise retroactive to July 1, 2014; 1 percent to take effect on July 1, 2015; 2 percent to take effect on March 1, 2016; and 1 percent effective Jan. 1, 2017.

The union declined the offer. Kandel declined to disclose details of Wednesday’s negotiations, though she has said that the union would be open to a multi-year agreement. 

The district claims it does not have the money to support a 10 percent raise and remain financially solvent in the long run, while the teachers union claims that its salaries have fallen behind that of neighboring San Luis Coastal Unified School District and Santa Maria-Bonita School District, making it difficult to recruit and retain teachers in the area.

How salaries compare

The average teacher salary in Lucia Mar was $61,613 for the 2013-14 school year, while the average for San Luis Coastal was $67,320 and Santa Maria-Bonita was $74,718, based on Lucia Mar district-prepared comparisons. Salary averages can sometimes be skewed depending on the number of low and high salaries for educators in the district.

A low salary for Lucia Mar for the same year was $42,246, according to the same comparison numbers, while the highest salary was $80,980. San Luis Coastal teacher pay ranges between $43,414 and $91,225, and in Santa Maria-Bonita between $50,102 and $99,334.   

San Luis Coastal tentatively approved a 4 percent raise increase for its teachers in February, which will also increase its average teachers salary and pay ranges.

Hogeboom, however, said Lucia Mar can’t be compared to neighboring districts because they are funded differently.

San Luis Coastal is a basic-aid district, meaning it gets almost all of its funding from property taxes.

In contrast, Lucia Mar — like most school districts statewide — receives its money based mostly on enrollment under the state Local Control Funding Formula; it gets extra money based on its number of English learners, foster children and low-income families.

Santa Maria-Bonita receives more than Lucia Mar under this formula because it has more of these types of students.

In 2014, Lucia Mar received about $7,189 per student, whereas Santa Maria-Bonita received about $9,450 and San Luis Coastal received $10,430, Hogeboom said.

“As long as the school district funding formula is unequal, that’s going to give some districts more money to pay salaries,” Hogeboom said. “But the way our funding is managed right now, it’s not fair. It isn’t fair, and it’s getting better, but it’s going to take us time to be more competitive.”

Hogeboom said Lucia Mar should be compared to other similarly funded county districts, such as Atascadero Unified School District ($7,133 per student), Paso Robles Joint Unified School District ($7,386) and Templeton Unified School District ($6,920). 

In 2014, the average teacher’s salary for those districts was $58,709, $59,192 and $60,672, respectively.

Kandel said that even though the districts may be funded differently, it is ridiculous for the district to expect to pay its teachers significantly less than its neighbors.

“The district wants to compare us to Atascadero, Paso and Templeton because those are all low-paying districts,” she said. “But we’re not really competing with Atascadero, etc. We’re competing with San Luis and Santa Maria for qualified educators.”

Kandel said the number of raises Lucia Mar teachers have received since the start of the recession is behind those of other districts, and coupled with higher health care costs, the burden on teachers is growing.  

Lucia Mar teachers received a 4.3 percent raise in 2013 and a 2 percent raise in 2012. Before that, the teachers had not received a raise since the 2008-09 school year beyond their regular step increases, she said. A teacher receives a step increase when he or she reaches certain experience levels.  

Heart of the dispute

The union also argues that the district does have the money to provide a raise: Lucia Mar received a 10 percent increase in state funding for the 2014-15 school year — roughly $6.63 million in new revenue — while the union’s 10 percent raise request seeks about $6.85 million. 

Hogeboom said the new revenue has already been budgeted toward a range of expenses, including $2.36 million to Local Control Accountability Program priorities such as adding intervention classes for struggling students, $812,872 to certificated staffing increases, $354,425 to California State Teachers' Retirement System (CalSTRS) payments and $252,950 for teacher stipends. 

About $1.37 million of the new revenue has been set aside for the district’s 2 percent raise offer.  

“Yes, we got 10 percent, but asking that we turn all of that over isn’t a reasonable expectation,” Hogeboom said.

Beyond that, he noted, for at least the last seven years the district has been spending more each year than it receives, forcing it to dip more into its unrestricted general fund.  

At the start of this academic year, the unrestricted general fund had a balance of $12.6 million, before adding in state funding and other sources of revenue. 

The county Office of Education requires that the district put aside funds each year from its unrestricted general fund for “economic uncertainties.” This reserve must equal at least 3 percent of the district’s total annual budget. That amounted to $2.89 million for the 2014-15 school year based on the district’s $96.5 million budget.   

When it presents its annual budget to the county, the district is required to show that its unrestricted fund ending balance is projected to be greater than the required economic uncertainty reserve for the next three years.

If the board were to grant teachers a 10 percent raise in the 2014-15 school year, it would be forced to dip more into the unrestricted general fund — and within three years Hogeboom projects that the beginning fund balance would drop below $3 million — meaning it would no longer be able to have 3 percent in its reserve fund. If that were to happen, the county education department would not approve its budget, and cuts would have to be made, he said.

After Wednesday’s mediation attempt, Hogeboom said a 10 percent raise for teachers now would require the district make about $10 million to $15 million in cuts and layoffs down the road.

“If 92 percent of our district budget is on personnel and salaries, then if we have to make cuts, it’s going to be laying people off,” he said. 

Kandel said she thinks the amount is available — if the district considers cutting some of its extra spending and examines pay for district administrators and some office employees, which the union claims are too high relative to other districts and the pay they’re offering Lucia Mar teachers.

“The idea from the district that this offer is going to bankrupt the district is nonsense,” Kandel said. “This is our livelihood. We wouldn’t do anything that would damage our home in the long run."

Throughout negotiations, the district also must consider its new contract with the local classified employees union.

The district reached agreement in January with the Classified School Employees Association #275, which represents about 360 school personnel such as bus drivers, food service workers and clerical employees. Employees will receive a 2.25 percent raise for the 2014-15 school year, retroactive to July 1, 2014. The change in pay will be reflected in classified employees’ April paychecks.¬¬

The new contract stipulates, however, that if the district reaches an agreement with the teachers union that gives teachers more than a 2.25 percent raise for the 2014-15 school year, the district’s classified employees will receive the same percentage increase. If the classified employees received a 10 percent raise, the extra cost to the district would increase from $279,656 (a 2.25 percent raise) to about $1.24 million, based on cost estimates given to the Lucia Mar board of trustees at their meeting March 24. 

Strike impact

If the two sides fail to reach an agreement once the fact-finding report is out, the district’s first-ever strike would be at hand — something that both sides recognize will have lasting impacts on the district. 

“Although we really do not want to strike, if our teachers vote to do so, it will be because the long-term goal is to benefit the district in the long run and to benefit our students,” Kandel said. 

Hogeboom said the impact of such a work stoppage would be damaging for both sides.

“A strike isn’t going to change anything. It’s just going to create havoc in the district,” Hogeboom said. “It’s going to ruin relationships for years, and from my perspective, nothing is going to change.”

Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Chuck Fiorentino said it is unclear how a strike will impact the district financially, though early projections have indicated that the district could actually save money. 

Fiorentino said even taking into account the higher wages the district would pay for substitutes during a strike — $300 a day, about triple the standard daily pay — the district could save money because it would not be paying teachers or providing them benefits while work is stopped. That will depend on how many substitute teachers the district hires, though, Fiorentino said.

Fact finding

The district and teachers union went into fact-finding on Feb. 27. Fact-finding is the process in which a third party is brought in during mediation to consider both sides and compile all of the facts of negotiations. The fact-finder then issues a non-binding report with his or her conclusions on how much the district can afford to pay. The fact-finding report for Lucia Mar is expected to be emailed to both the district and the union negotiating team around Wednesday. Both are required to keep it private for 10 days, before releasing the report to the public. They have the option of meeting to reach an agreement prior to the report being made public, but if no agreement happens, the district and union must meet one more time for a final negotiation attempt. If that attempt is unsuccessful, and the teachers authorized a strike, the union could then go ahead with planning a work stoppage.

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