Lucia mar teacher strike needs to be averted

Teachers from Ocean View Elementary School in Arroyo Grande hold signs calling for a new contract agreement with the Lucia Mar school district during a rally in March 2015.
Teachers from Ocean View Elementary School in Arroyo Grande hold signs calling for a new contract agreement with the Lucia Mar school district during a rally in March 2015. sprovost@thetribunenews.com

The Lucia Mar Unified School District has never experienced a teacher strike. That’s a record worth keeping.

Strikes are ugly and disruptive. They turn perfectly reasonable people into foaming-at-the-mouth ideologues.

And as for any real student learning taking place? Forget about it. Some families, out of solidarity with teachers and/or concern for their kids, will opt to keep students home. For those students who do attend class, it won’t be business as usual. Suddenly, their regular teachers are gone, replaced with substitutes referred to as “scabs.” And, yes, children will hear that word and possibly worse.

What’s more, a strike will reverberate far beyond the schools; it will polarize the entire South County, in some cases creating rifts worse than we’ve seen in the most divisive political campaigns.

The entire community should be rooting for both sides to come to an agreement.

For that to happen, the teachers union and the district are going to have to set aside the back-and-forth rhetoric, come back to the table and negotiate a salary package both parties can live with. That will likely mean both sides will walk away at least a little bit unhappy.

We aren’t going to pull a number out of a hat, or suggest the two sides split the difference. Nor are we going to opine that teachers should earn exactly as much as their counterparts in the neighboring districts of San Luis Coastal or Santa Maria-Bonita. Those districts have more revenue, and have for many years.

Such disparities are a fact of life in the public and private sectors. Some cities, for example, can’t afford to pay their police officers or firefighters as well as a neighboring community, and they often lose experienced personnel as a result.

It’s unfair, and we wish teacher pay were more equitable. But Lucia Mar doesn’t control school financing; Sacramento does.

The district does, however, control its own budget, and that’s where the disagreement arises.

Teachers say the district has squandered money on programs and projects it doesn’t need, such as high-priced consultants. They warn the district will continue to lose promising young teachers to Santa Maria-Bonita and San Luis Coastal if it doesn’t do more to close the pay gap.

The district, though, denies there has been an exodus of teachers; according to its statistics, between 2009 and 2014, 48 teachers left the district to take other jobs. No more than 12 left in a single year.

The district also says it is doing as much as it can to keep teacher salaries competitive. Superintendent Jim Hogeboom says he’s continuing to look for budget savings that can go toward employee compensation.

That’s good.

We’re also glad to hear that after being stuck at 10 percent (teachers) and 2 percent (district), both sides appear to have moved off their initial positions.

The district announced last week that it had offered a 6 percent raise over three years, and Hogeboom said the union had “come off the 10 percent.”

(Donna Kandel, president of the Lucia Mar Unified Teachers Association, did not disclose the union’s latest bargaining position, pointing to a state law that requires all settlement discussions occurring in the course of mediation to remain confidential. Hogeboom said the district was allowed to make public its latest offer of 6 percent over three years because it was in the form of a formal, written offer.)

As a next step, David Hart — the mediator appointed as neutral fact finder — will issue a report on the district’s financial situation and what it can afford to pay teachers.

That report is expected to be issued to the district and union negotiating teams between Monday and Wednesday. It will be made public 10 days later, at which point teachers, parents and other community members can review it. After that, there’s one more mediation session, and if there’s still no agreement, a strike could be called.

May it never come to that.

The fact-finding report should shed some objective light on issues that have been argued, back and forth, over the past few months.

We urge both sides to use that information to forge an agreement fair to both sides — one that will allow the district to meet its financial obligations while recognizing that teachers are the single most important factor in student success and should be paid accordingly.

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