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Covina-Valley Unified teachers poised to strike as last-ditch negotiations unfold

Teachers rally outside Covina-Valley Unified School District headquarters.
Teachers rally outside Covina-Valley Unified School District headquarters in Covina just before the resumption of negotiations between the teachers union and school system. The union has set a strike date of Thursday if talks fail to reach a tentative settlement.
(Howard Blume / Los Angeles Times)
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Tensions were high Wednesday within the Covina-Valley Unified School District as it teetered on the edge of a planned Thursday strike by teachers while last-ditch negotiations stretched deep into the evening.

The strike, if it happens, would be an anomaly during a period of relatively muted labor unrest in California’s K-12 public school systems, buoyed by record levels of funding — although the money is not certain to persist at current levels.

A primary point of contention between sides is changes to health benefits proposed by officials of the east San Gabriel Valley school district of about 13,400 students.

The district would like to set up a two-tiered system, under which the dependents of new employees would have strict caps on healthcare spending. The union wants to maintain the status quo, under which all family members have the same benefits, with fewer restrictions on the amount available for medical services.

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Entering Wednesday, the two sides also had not reached full agreement on compensation, although they were close in terms of the raise union members would receive for the already concluded 2021-22 school year.

“We think that we can get close on salary” and other issues, Adam Hampton, president of the Covina Unified Education Assn., said Wednesday morning. “The trigger is healthcare.”

Starting at 6:30 a.m., more than 300 picketers demonstrated outside district headquarters.

“I need to stick up for the younger teachers,” said Susan Ricker, a learning specialist and longtime teacher at Manzanita Elementary School in Covina. “The young teachers out here. They have to live out of our district because they don’t make enough money to live here. They can have young families. They can’t afford the insurance.”

District officials declined to be interviewed but released a statement Wednesday. They also have posted updates online, as has the union.

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“We are disheartened that union time, talent and energy would focus on a strike rather than trying to reach an agreement,” the district statement said, “especially considering that Covina-Valley teachers are among the highest paid and have — and will continue to have under the district’s proposal — one of the best medical benefits packages in the entire region.”

The district statement added that officials are “hopeful that we can resolve our differences and come to an agreement.”

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Negotiations began at 9 a.m., shortly after the rally. Teachers returned to district headquarters after school to demonstrate again. No resolution had been reached by the early evening.

Although an agreement over benefits could avert a strike, the two sides still would have much work to do. As with other union contracts, either side can bring up a number of issues under an existing, ratified contract. These are called “reopeners.” These issues — though small in number — can include salary negotiations. In Covina-Valley, the previous teachers contract, which expired at the end of June, has unsettled issues over compensation and how the cases of students with disabilities will be managed.

Separately, the two sides then must reach an agreement for the current school year and beyond under a fully bargained new contract.

A union spokesman said Wednesday afternoon that the union’s immediate goal is to reach an agreement covering last year and this year.

The school system serves Covina, West Covina, Glendora, San Dimas, Irwindale and unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County. It has nine elementary schools, three middle schools, three comprehensive high schools, a continuation school and an online school, as well as preschool and adult education.

Close to 70% of district students are from low-income families and about 80% are Latino.

The district employs about 575 teachers. The morning demonstration included some parents and students. The teachers union also represents the district’s nurses and speech pathologists.

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