La Cañada Unified teacher negotiations get started

Local teachers and public school officials launched new contract negotiations this week, marking the start of what is likely to be a months-long exchange shaped by dwindling budgets and controversy over policies such as the use of teacher collaboration days.

“It is going to be a tough round of negotiations because we are running out of resources,” La Cañada Unified School District board member Andrew Blumenfeld said. “It is going to be tough because there is a lot of uncertainty as we wait to see what happens on the ballot in November. And it is going to be tough because it is a once-every-three-year event.”

Leaders from the district and the La Cañada Teachers Assn. met Monday and Wednesday, the first steps in drafting a successor to the current three-year contract, which expires in June. Talks are expected to extend well into the 2012-13 school year, with the terms of the current contract remaining in place until a replacement is signed.

Assistant Supt. of Human Resources Patricia Hager said the first round of negotiations will focus on the academic calendar and teacher collaboration days.

Collaboration days —time for teachers to analyze data, share ideas and sharpen lesson plans — have been criticized by some parents who want more instructional time for the students, not less. La Cañada allowed four collaboration days as an experiment during the current school year.

The goal will be to come up with a plan that serves everybody, Hager said.

“The bottom line is we have to provide teachers with the time to plan because there are so many new things coming up that are going to require intensive working together,” Hager said, referring to a forthcoming state curriculum and accountability system.

Underpinning the negotiations is tension within the teachers corps stemming from years of tight budgets —which may or may not be alleviated by tax proposals on the November ballot — and from local issues, including the policy on teacher collaboration days and the handling of a complaint against math teacher Gabrielle Leko.

Leko agreed to leave the district in exchange for a $215,000 payout after a months-long probe of allegations that she verbally abused students.

La Cañada High School science teacher Patty Compeau told the school board at a meeting earlier this month that she feels teachers do not get the respect they deserve.

“The elephant in our room for me has been that the teachers have no value, and that the parents of this community are well heard and well spoken for because they come to the board meetings and express their opinions,” Compeau said. “The teachers are working very hard. I am often [at school] until eight, nine o'clock at night making sure my lessons are valuable for the students.”

District officials contend that the last thing they want is for teachers to feel maligned.

In an opinion piece published by local newspapers last week, La Cañada Teachers Assn. President Mandy Redfern responded to some community members who have suggested the union does more to protect teachers than to serve students.

“Blaming teacher unions and teachers is not the right tactic,” Redfern said. ‘There is no one who wants higher teacher quality than teachers themselves. We want to be our best and work with the best.”

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