Twin Hills teachers plan to strike unless THUSD boosts the salary offer

By Camille Escovedo, Staff Writer, SoCoNews, June 16, 2021

twin hills teachers

Twin Hills Union School District educators also sought higher wages two years ago when this photo was taken, according Leslie Konvalinka of the Twin Hills Teachers Association. (Photo courtesy Twin Hills Teachers Association)

Twin Hills teachers plan to strike the first day of the coming school year if the Twin Hills Union School District (THUSD) doesn’t come up with another offer on salaries, according to Twin Hills Teachers Association (THTA) bargaining chair Leslie Konvalinka.

The district and the union remain at an impasse after a factfinding hearing on May 24, following months of negotiations and even state mediation that failed to break their deadlock in collective bargaining for the current and coming school years.

Superintendent Barbara Bickford said the school board has unanimously accepted the recommendation of the factfinder panel’s neutral chair, Renée Mayne, to offer a 4% bonus for the 2020-21 fiscal year and a 4% on-schedule salary raise for the 2021-22 fiscal year.

In a June 14 interview, the district’s attorney Paul Nicholas Boylan said negotiations for the successor contract concluded on June 9 when THTA neither accepted the district’s new offer nor proposed a new offer since the hearing.

He said the district has now imposed its last offer — the 4% — which is a bump up from its original proposal of a 2% bonus for the current year and a 2% on-schedule raise for the next school year.

The board had authorized the district to do so if the union didn’t agree to Mayne’s guidance, Boylan said. In effect, the district’s most recent offer has become the official successor contract, he said, including other contract changes the district and the union agreed to but that haven’t been ratified by THTA yet.

Boylan noted that “last, best and final” doesn’t necessarily mean the negotiations actually stop, but that imposing a contract means there’s something to replace the contract that expired, so the parties have something “that can be negotiated and be operated to protect interests and rights.”

The attorney also said that, for instance, the door is open for the district to approach the union to discuss increasing the raise if the state confirms over the summer unequivocally that it will provide more stable funding that can go towards teacher raises.

THTA has objected to the chair’s final report in a June 4 press release, calling for on-schedule salary raises of 5% for the 2020-21 fiscal year and 7% for the 2021-22 year.

That doesn’t mean that’s the only offer that can prevent a strike, Konvalinka said. Teachers want on-schedule salary raises for both school years to keep up with other local districts and the cost of living in Sonoma County, she said.

In May, 98% of the union voted in favor of authorizing THTA’s leadership to call a strike if they didn’t come to a consensus with the district through the factfinding hearing.

“That’s the plan if we don’t get an agreement that actually does something to raise our salaries,” Konvalinka said, adding later, “Prices have gone up, but we’re not making more.”

THTA’s factfinding panel representative issued a letter of dissent to the chair’s final decision, requesting the letter be filed with both parties and the California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB), per the report.

Factfinding report suggests doubling district’s first offer and prioritizing teachers

The two parties presented their stances over salaries, health insurance and grievance arbitration before a three-person factfinding panel, including union representative Mark Mitchell and the district’s attorney Paul Boylan as factfinders.

Mayne, the arbitrator and mediator appointed as the panel’s neutral chair appointed by PERB, issued the factfinding report on June 3 with her recommendations to settle the enduring impasse.

“The Neutral finds the District’s concerns for its future fiscal year budgets are legitimate,” the chair’s discussion in the report said, validating the unknown and immediate impacts of COVID-19 on the state and national economy that could influence funding and operating costs. The report said it isn’t clear how decreasing student enrollment could affect the THUSD’s budget or staffing, either. But Mayne’s findings also validated that the district needs to hold onto qualified educators.

“Therefore, the Neutral recommends the District redouble its efforts in future budgets to reduce its overhead and other costs not directly related to teaching to increase the teachers’ salaries and benefits substantially,” the report said.

Furthermore, the report said, “The most compelling evidence presented in the hearing is the quality-of-life issues experienced by the teachers who live in Sonoma County and their sacrifices to work for Twin Hills.”

Proposing that the school board offer twice its original offer, the report said, “In the next round of negotiations, for 2022-23 and beyond, a revision of the District’s budget to prioritize the teachers’ salaries and benefits will lead to more creative and collaborative labor-management agreements that strengthen the students’ education.”

The panel representatives of the two parties said in a May 25 panel phone conference after the hearing that the district and the union reached agreements on health insurance and grievance arbitration, the factfinding report said.

Teachers and the district both attest to hard times

Konvalinka said the teachers were “a little surprised” by the chair’s recommendations given her statement that the district must boost its efforts to reduce overhead and other costs in future budgets to raise salaries and benefits.

“And that’s what we’ve been fighting for for years. So, like everything she says validates what we’ve been saying, we just feel like it has to happen now. It can’t keep being pushed off to the future,” she said.

According to Konvalinka, there’s talk of empathy for teachers but it’s not demonstrated in action. “So, at this point, we feel very unheard. And the district and the school board are out of touch with how the teachers really feel.”

Bickford said the district has already taken actions as a result of hearing their concerns. “We cut an assistant principal position at Apple Blossom for next year, hearing the concerns that do we have overhead that maybe we can look at,” she said.

“We have had some declining enrollment. That includes a decline in some of our students with special needs, so we’re reducing special education teachers at Apple Blossom from two to one,” Bickford noted. “But, we’re increasing some instructional assistant time to help support those students in the classroom. We’re making lots of structural changes and I can’t address and speak to what the incoming superintendent and the board will do together and their work with the union.”

According to the factfinding report, teachers said the main reasons the two were in gridlock are because teachers are enduring “low pay and high cost of dependent health insurance, and Sonoma County’s steep cost of living.”

The union provided 12 written testimonials from teachers, recounting “that while they work 10-to-12-hour days with their teaching responsibilities, some teachers were forced to work second and third jobs to maintain their financial stability,” the report said.

The stress between making ends meet and the pandemic impacted the education students received in the classroom, THTA asserted.

The report noted the union previously “showed that Twin Hills ranked fourth of five local districts in Sonoma County for minimum and maximum teacher salaries based upon 184 days,” up next to Gravenstein, Forestville, Oak Grove and Sebastopol districts, “and only Sebastopol was below Twin Hills.”

As THTA has called attention to before, the California Department of Education recorded that the average salary for public school teachers in California was $84,531 in the 2019-20 year. That same data indicated the average teacher’s salary at THUSD as $64,594.

The union held some of the district’s reserves should be used to increase pay for teachers, finding THUSD’s unaudited actual reserves to be nearly 40% when its own minimum is 17% and the state’s minimum set for the district is 4%, the report said.

Further, the report said THTA claimed the district could raise salaries with one-time funds, saying the district would soon receive substantial Proposition 98 state funding and state and federal stimulus monies.

“There’s a lot of time between now and August and we’re hoping to continue our conversations, and I believe that, circling back to what the factfinder noted, she examined our budget carefully and she did not find for more this school year than a bonus,” Bickford said. “She didn’t find that we had sufficient funds to give a raise.”

Per Mayne’s report, the district “was not willing to use one-time funds for recurring expenses,” with the superintendent stating incoming federal stimulus funds are intended for costs related to COVID-19.

The report said the district had found the union’s proposal unfeasible at $1,060,888 over the two-year period, costing $88,407 per individual percent increase because the district gives matching “me-too” salary raises to its other employees.

In addition, the report noted the district receives less Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) money than other local districts because it does not have the percentage of English Learners, foster youth or students eligible for free or reduced meals required by the state to qualify for concentration grant funding.

As for its reserve, the report said the district put forward that it keeps a reserve greater than 15% because “small districts have diseconomies of scale and must keep sufficient funds for unexpected expenses or changes in the economy.”

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