What was supposed to be an event celebrating local schools for receiving a state honor was canceled Thursday because its central figure — Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) — decided not to attend at the last minute after he learned teachers had grievances against the school district over ongoing union negotiations.
A couple dozen teachers from Jefferson, Edison and Bret Harte elementary schools stood outside Burbank High School before the honor ceremony holding signs and protesting the lack of progress with contract negotiations.
Chanting phrases such as "appreciate and compensate" and "don't be a hater, pay the educators," the teachers said they were aware of the ceremony and thought it was a good opportunity to let their voices be heard.
Inside Burbank High, teachers and students were waiting for the ceremony to begin until they were told by Burbank Unified Supt. Matt Hill that Schiff would not be attending.
Schiff was supposed to hand out flags to representatives from schools that had received Golden Ribbon accolades from the California Department of Education.
In announcing Schiff's decision, Hill said the congressman told him he appreciated the work of the students, parents, teachers and administrators in the district.
"We are going to work with him to reschedule for another appropriate time to be able to have a celebration and recognition of all the hard work you do at your sites," Hill said to the crowd assembled inside the auditorium.
Schiff representatives said he had to miss the event because of his support of labor and schools.
"As a rule, Congressman Schiff does not cross picket or demonstration lines during contract disputes between employers and unions," according to a statement released by his office Friday.
"He is strongly supportive of full funding of our schools and teachers. He wasn't aware that any demonstration would be taking place until the day of the scheduled flag presentation, and he looks forward to rescheduling the event for a future date."
Hill said he and the district's administrators understand the challenges teachers face.
"We say appreciations. We give you thanks. But we also know how challenging financially it is to live in California, especially around Burbank or [in] Burbank. We do know that," Hill said.
"We are turning over every rock, we're being as creative as possible" to address the compensation issue, he added.
Outside the school before the ceremony, teachers voiced their frustrations about how labor negotiations are going.
"We're currently working without a contract," said teacher Chris Uribe. "They're trying to settle the contract for this year, but the district keeps coming back with no offer. They've come to the bargaining table three times with no offer."
For teacher Connie Struyk, who is part of a family of five, paying health insurance premiums is a significant concern. Her monthly premiums went up $300 this year, she said, but the district isn't paying any money to compensate for the increase.
"I think a lot of this is happening nationwide," Struyk said. "Like the governor of Oklahoma came out really down on teachers, but I don't think they understand how it affects us day to day. We are working so many more hours than we ever have."
The picketing teachers also pointed out that they have not received a cost-of-living raise for years.
Inside the auditorium during the planned event, Hill said, "We do feel that, at a minimum, there should be a cost-of-living increase … That was not the case last year, and it is a darn struggle this year to figure that out, but we aren't quitting until we find a pathway forward."
Hill also said some teachers have questioned a multi-million-dollar surplus in the budget.
He explained that the surplus is tied to teachers who receive health benefits from the time they retire until they are eligible for Medicare. The district funds those expenses on a "pay as you go" system, but it also has set aside a trust exclusively for that cost, which has about $7 million in it.
"So if that 'pay as you go' gets too big, rather than having to pull back money from the General Fund allocation, you could use some from that trust," Hill said of the reasoning behind the special account.
He said that he and school board members are looking at whether there is too much money in the trust.
"Should we look at that? Are we being too conservative with that money? And we also want to make sure that, we're good now, but 'pay as you go' has been increasing between $150,000 and $200,000 a year. Can we keep up with that increase to make sure the commitment we have made to all of you, especially people who are going to retire 20, 30, 40 years from now, will there be enough?"