Twin Hills district teachers authorize a strike, seeking better pay and benefits

By Camille Escovedo, Staff Writer, SoCoNews, May 17, 2021

Twin Hills protest

Twin Hills Union School District educators also struch for high wages two years ago, according to Leslie Konvalinka of the Twin Hills Teachers Association.

The Twin Hills Teachers Association (THTA) is ready and willing to strike if the Twin Hills Union School District (THUSD) doesn’t agree to competitive salaries going forward, according to bargaining chair and math teacher Leslie Konvalinka.

The Twin Hills Charter Middle School teacher said support among tired and frustrated teachers was “overwhelming,” with 56 of the union’s 57 members, or 98%, voting May 12 to authorize a strike if the two parties don’t make it through the impasse process with an agreement.

A May 13 THTA press release said, “This decisive strike vote comes after months of fruitless negotiations, including failed impasse mediation with the State Mediation and Conciliation Services, and insulting offers from the district that included a 0% wage increase for this year.”

The calendar is set for a fact-finding hearing on May 24 per the Educational Employment Relations Act, presenting another opportunity for compromise, Konvalinka said.

If they don’t settle a deal, a panel of three individuals appointed by THTA, the district and California Public Employee Relations Board (PERB), respectively, would release a report after hearing presentations from both parties that offers a non-binding recommendation, she explained.

While the demands do not have specific numbers attached so far, she said maintaining and improving health benefits in future contracts is a secondary priority.

Konvalinka and THTA co-presidents Nicole Ellwood and Kristen Del Monte attended the May 13 board meeting to announce the union’s objection to the district’s current offer.

On the other side of state mediation, THUSD has proposed a 0% wage increase and a 2% off-schedule bump — a bonus — for the current year and a 2% on-schedule wage increase in the 2021-22 year, according to the press release.

Konvalinka said Twin Hills educators scrape by below the state average in both salaries and health benefits. According to the California Department of Education here, the average salary for public school teachers in California was $84,531 in the 2019-20 year.

The same state data shows the THUSD average salary as $64,594, “despite Sonoma County being recognized as one of the least affordable counties in the nation for educators,” the press release said.

“The impact is this,” Del Monte said at the May 13 meeting. “Twin Hills is no longer retaining educators as before.”

The Apple Blossom School teacher said teachers struggle to afford housing and health care coverage for their children, many taking on second jobs.

“How can we be expected to be present in the classroom taking care of all of our students’ needs when we are struggling to take care of our own? And for every teacher leaving to find better pay, a position opens up. Teachers are not seeking our district because our reputation does not pay their bills,” she said.

Konvalinka said she did not know how prevalent second jobs were other than “quite a few” were making ends meet that way, “and that takes a toll on our students because they’re tired and they’re not able to put as much into their classroom because they’re having to spend time working a second job.”

According to the bargaining chair, some teachers are also turning to Medi-Cal to cover their kids, unable to afford out-of-pocket costs associated with placing their children on the benefits offered by the district.

Konvalinka said THTA and THUSD had settled numerous topics in contract negotiation sessions that began last fall, but snagged on salaries and benefits.

The parties made a joint request for mediation through PERB in February and the board certified the two for a fact-finding hearing after a couple sessions, she said.

Superintendent Barbara Bickford said in a May 13 email, “We appreciate our teachers. We know how hard they worked during distance learning, and we agree that they should be paid as much as is reasonably possible.”

However, she said the district doesn’t have the money for more raises and benefits past cost of living adjustments (COLA), in its current state of limited state funding and dropping student numbers.

“We don’t want to close any schools or eliminate any student programs,” Bickford said, adding that THUSD offered “to continue negotiations if the state provides more funding, which we are optimistic will happen, and an offer to work together to look at other health care options that would be less expensive but provide more coverage.”

According to the superintendent, the district provided 9.5% salary increases and regular step raises around 2% in the 2018-19 and 2019-20 years, but finances have changed.

“This is the best the district can do without risking the financial difficulties that our neighboring high school district is experiencing,” she said.

Any raises will be determined by state cost of living adjustments, she said, noting also that THUSD is unique in that it subsidizes its charter schools without state funding to keep up with past raises and desired programming.

THTA challenges the defense that the money doesn’t exist for higher pay, according to the May 13 press release putting forward that “as usual, the district is crying poverty,” and that total available funds are under-projected and increasing, anticipating federal stimulus funds and an “an ‘all-time high’ state education budget.”

At the May 13 board meeting, Elwood said, “We would like to say we appreciate the district’s history of being fiscally responsible. Unfortunately, the district’s effort to conserve money is now jeopardizing the quality education the district has become known for.”

Ellwood, a Twin Hills Charter Middle School teacher, continued, “It is clear that teachers are not a priority in the district’s budget …This offer demonstrates a lack of prioritization for students and teachers during any school year but honestly was an insult in a year when teachers have worked harder than ever.”

Bickford, who is retiring after nine years with the district, said she hopes to avoid a strike now that students have returned to class two days a week, and that she’s “optimistic” that the district and the union will be able to move forward in future dialogues.

The teachers association also hopes to resolve the dispute and steer clear of a strike that could take effect in the coming fall, Konvalinka said. It would be the first in her career if a strike comes to pass, she said. So far, she and other THTA leaders have sought outreach to gauge consensus among members who ultimately backed the authorization resoundingly.

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