La Cañada school district hashes out new staff contracts

A rising tide lifts all boats, or at least that seems to be the cautious hope among La Cañada Unified School District officials, who recently approved raises for all teachers, administrators and classified staff after a years-long financial dry spell.

The school board approved new agreements with its three employee unions at a June 28 special meeting. The settlements call for increases in salary and benefits retroactive to last school year and continuing through fiscal year 2014-15, with a promise of more if voters pass a parcel tax in the spring. This is the first pay raise La Cañada teachers have seen in six years, according to the La Cañada Teachers Assn.

Superintendent Wendy Sinnette said Wednesday the district used a very conservative funding formula to determine it could maintain 2% increases without harming reserve funds, but she admitted there are still some crucial unknowns.

"We have the governor's Local Control Funding Formula, which means more money, but we're still uncertain as to what the actual dollars are," Sinnette said.

The district's California School Employees Assn. and the Confidential, Managerial, Supervisorial Assn. agreed to 2% salary and benefit increases, and an additional 2% pending parcel tax approval. The teachers association accepted that amount only for fiscal year 2012-13, opting to reopen talks on compensation for the following two years after learning how the final state budget will play out.

Sinnette called the move "a gamble on their part," but LCTA President Mandy Redfern said in an email interview that the new Local Control Funding Formula was not fully realized when the bargaining for the new contract was underway. "We did not want to make any commitments until we actually understood the funding," she said.

As for the parcel tax, Redfern said the union will work hard to ensure the community understands the value of investing in local schools, and will return to the table to talk increases should it pass.

According to preliminary figures on the fiscal impact of the contract agreements submitted to the Los Angeles County Office of Education, La Cañada Unified had been spending a combined total of $23.9 million on its 337 bargaining unit employees, including salaries, benefits and other compensations.

The exact cost of the increases cannot be pinpointed, since LCTA has opted to potentially renegotiate a different amount, but 2% raises across the board could cost an estimated $1.45 million, according to the documents filed.

In exchange for teacher raises, LCTA agreed to adopt a new teacher evaluation system that will measure performance using several tools, including formal observations and informal walk-through sessions, survey data, peer feedback and student achievement.

The system will be piloted by a small group of teachers the second semester of the upcoming school year, Redfern said, in advance of a full rollout by the 2014-15 school year. Sinnette called the agreement a win-win for both parties.

"We were able to negotiate some really substantive and transformative successes with the union regarding the teacher evaluation process," Sinnette said. "We made some really strong gains."

Board members also approved 2% salary increases for Sinnette and district cabinet members, including departing Assistant Superintendent of Facilities and Operations Mike Leininger, newly promoted Associate Supt. Patricia Hager and Anais Wenn, the new assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. It is a common practice employed at some school districts that when across-the-board raises are given to all union employees, officials receive a similar increase.

School board member Andrew Blumenfeld objected to some key aspects of the cabinet raises, pulling the item out of the consent agenda and casting the lone vote against it. In an interview Monday, he said that as members of the team negotiating contracts on behalf of the district, Leininger and Hager stood to gain from backing a standard pay increase. While he does not believe they intentionally acted from self-interest, he said officials should behave in a manner that is beyond reproach.

"When you're entrusted with dealing with the public's money, you need to not only behave absolutely above board and do everything exactly right, but you need to be holding yourself to a standard where you aren't vulnerable to accusations," Blumenfeld said. "I think this practice absolutely does make us vulnerable to those accusations."



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