After a long dry spell, more of state's teachers get pay raises

After several lean years, thousands of California teachers are winning pay hikes, bonuses and other benefits in contract negotiations — the fruits of voter-approved school funding increases.

The $6.1 billion in new funds headed for schools this year courtesy of Proposition 30, a temporary income and sales tax increase, also will allow officials to rescind layoffs and restore days to the school calendar in districts from Napa to Long Beach.

"On the whole, teachers are happier," said Eric Heins, vice president of the California Teachers Assn. "We're beginning to see a very positive direction" in the state.

But officials in some districts, the teachers association says, still are "behaving badly."

In San Diego County, for instance, the Alpine Unified Board of Education recently approved what teachers said would amount to a 30% cut in pay and health benefits. Facing a $1.3-million budget deficit, officials voted to make cuts beyond what a state labor official — who has been brought in to mediate a settlement — had recommended.

And teachers in the Mount Diablo Unified School District near Oakland have accused officials of hoarding a budget reserve of $42 million, when only $5.4 million is required by law. Mount Diablo teachers are pushing for more money for health insurance and a 7% pay increase, more than double what the district is offering.

In Los Angeles Unified, the state's largest school system, teachers have not received a raise in nearly seven years and no progress has been made in negotiating for one — even though both the district and the teachers union back a pay boost.

Supt. John Deasy said in an interview that he supported giving all employees pay raises, adding that the situation was especially hard on lower-wage workers. "We have to be mindful of these folks," he said. "People need a raise."

But United Teachers Los Angeles officers are divided on the strategy for pushing forward.

Union President Warren Fletcher blamed Deasy for a lack of progress in negotiations, saying the schools chief seemed more committed to rhetoric about raises than action.

Gregg Solkovits — a UTLA vice president who is among those challenging Fletcher for the presidency — said the union should have kick-started the process by first deciding on contract demands and then building support for them with rallies and other actions while negotiating with the district. That is the traditional strategy, he said, that the union used to win a pay hike in 2006.

Fletcher said he had not started that process — declining to specify the size of raise he wants to push — because he was aiming to coordinate with other district unions a united approach to bargaining. Those groups were scheduled to meet with Deasy early in the new year, he said.

Solkovits, however, said many teachers are becoming frustrated and impatient. "They want a pay raise and they wanted it yesterday," he said. "A number of leaders within UTLA think we should have pushed stronger to get negotiations going."

The two union leaders, however, are united on some issues: the need for raises and smaller class sizes and their wariness of Deasy's desire to tie additional pay increases to job performance.

Even though teachers in some districts have yet to make gains, Heins said, more California teachers overall are seeing pay hikes this year — generally 2% to 5% — than since the recession began.

Teachers in the Long Beach Unified School District ratified an agreement this month for a 3% raise and more instructor, staff and parent involvement in school decisions.

In Montebello Unified, teachers received a 5% pay increase and about $2,400 more per person for health insurance. Reflecting uncertainty about a new state funding system allotting more dollars for disadvantaged students, however, part of the salary increase will continue beyond this year only if the district receives all the funds it expects, said Lorraine Richards, president of the Montebello Teachers Assn.

"For so many years, we've waited and waited, and seen cut after cut," Richards said. "Teachers are very pleased that they've finally seen a pay increase."

In San Lorenzo Unified near Oakland, teachers are overjoyed by their first raise in six years — and relieved that 50 teaching and counseling positions lost during the recession have been restored — said Donna Pinkney, president of the teachers union.

"It's been awful the past six or seven years, but it's a miracle that things have turned around," Pinkney said. "People are optimistic that the pendulum is finally swinging in the other direction."

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times