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Health benefit and proposed school start date fuel pushback from Newport-Mesa teachers

Teacher contract rally
Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers President Britt Dowdy, left, and Jeff Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers, lead a rally by Newport-Mesa teachers before Monday’s board of trustees meeting.
(Hillary Davis)

Teachers in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District haven’t yet agreed to a new employment contract, but if they accept the latest offer, it will include lower district contributions for healthcare than newly ratified contracts for support staff and top administrators.

That key difference, along with an unpopular proposal to move up the start of the school year to before Labor Day, were two sticking points the local teachers union brought to the board of trustees’ meeting Monday night.

About 150 teachers — most wearing matching blue shirts — from the 1,200-member Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers packed the meeting to share their concerns as negotiations continue.

The board Monday easily approved contracts for the separate union for support staff, such as custodians, administrative assistants and teacher’s aides, and for district administrators that included an increase to the maximum the district will contribute to health benefits from $19,293 a year per participant to $20,441. The support and administrator contracts also included 3.5% salary increases.

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But the health benefit provision isn’t in the district’s latest offer to teachers, making it unfair, according to union President Britt Dowdy.

Dowdy said the union has filed an unfair labor practice complaint that will be heard in November by the Public Employment Relations Board, the state agency responsible for enforcing collective bargaining laws covering public sector unions.

“It appears the district is rushing toward impasse,” he said. “We’re deeply concerned by this. We’re doing everything we can to bring ideas and change and we want to continue to move forward. We believe there is a lot of room to wiggle at the table.”

The teachers’ contract was not on the agenda Monday, and trustees did not comment about it.

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A district statement Tuesday said the district and the teachers union have met for 14 negotiating sessions since March and that “we are hopeful in our ability to come to a resolution on this matter and continue to provide exceptional benefits to our employees.”

Kirby Piazza, a Costa Mesa High School teacher, said teachers aren’t complaining about their pay — he noted that Newport-Mesa offers some of the highest teacher salaries in Orange County. But he said nobody would agree to losing out on a contractual health benefit.

Jeff Freitas, president of the California Federation of Teachers, said he was often sick when he was in the classroom because of children’s tendency to pass around germs, so teachers’ healthcare is important.

“Their working conditions are the students’ learning conditions,” Freitas said.

Meanwhile, Matt Armstrong, a teacher at Newport Harbor High School, said the community’s desire is not to start school two weeks earlier than usual and that it’s his duty to uphold that will.

The district wants to move up the first day of school next year to Aug. 24 from the day after Labor Day.

Officials have said potential benefits of starting the school year earlier include additional instruction time before Advanced Placement testing; more opportunities for internships, summer jobs and camps; providing final transcripts to colleges faster; and more opportunities for high school seniors to participate in year-end events.

John Brazelton, a Newport Harbor teacher, said he initially liked the earlier start date because it would put the schools on a collegiate calendar, with the fall term, including midyear final exams, wrapped up before winter break. But then he noticed it would be lopsided, with a fall semester of 79 days and a spring term of 101 days, putting fall-term students in single-semester subjects like health at a disadvantage, he said.

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“How does the teacher of a semester-long course square that circle?” Brazelton said.

He also criticized an email from Supt. Fred Navarro that he said misled employees and families into thinking the calendar change was a done deal.

“Are we being treated as partners in this decision or are we being treated as adversaries?” Brazelton said.

Anticipation hung in the air around Laguna Beach High School on Monday for the first day of the new school year — a week earlier than usual. The change provoked consternation among some parents when it was approved a year ago.

Tina Taylor, a teacher at Costa Mesa High and the mother of three daughters, said the new start date would disrupt a family tradition of taking all her children to see their sisters off to college. Those still in school would either have to miss class or stay with friends, and she would have to get a substitute to cover her classes at the start of the year, she said.

“That calendar change hits in multiple ways that I don’t think has really been thoroughly thought through,” Taylor said.

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Updates:
3:42 PM, Oct. 08, 2019: This article was originally published at 2:54 p.m. and has been updated with additional information and comments.

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