School Beat: A Contract for Teachers

by Lisa Schiff on April 6, 2006

The 2006-2007 school year will no doubt go down in local history as one of the most exhausting, tumultuous years in the existence of the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). From the near-strike with school support staff (SEIU 790), to a second round of school closures, to the departure of former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, to the expiration of the Consent Decree and the resultant obligation to create a new assignment system, we have been living in a public education maelstrom. Yet the biggest challenge, settling a new contract with the teachers, is still facing us.

Last week members of the teachers’ union, United Educators of San Francisco (UESF) voted to authorize a strike. Though strikes are the last thing that anyone wants, UESF members were quite strong in their decision with about 2700 members out of 6000 turning out tand, according to UESF, about 87% of voting to authorize a strike. (http://www.uesf.org/strikevote.html). After years without pay increases and the outrageous cost of living in San Francisco continuing to climb, teachers have clearly had enough.

The district and the union have been in negotiations for awhile, with the next formal session scheduled for April 10th. In terms of the financial distance between the two parties, there is still a several percentage point gap—a 7.5% raise over 18 months offered by the district, where the union in its published materials is asking for 12% phased in over the next two years.

In addition to financial issues, there are others as well, ranging from having phones in classrooms to the scope of information that can be included in an evaluation. As with the support staff labor dispute, Parents for Public Schools has created a website with links to material being put out by both parties, in an effort to get as much information out to the community as possible (http://www.ppssf.org/Labor2006.html).

The tragic part of this situation is that we are all in agreement. Teachers need more money, more resources, more benefits, more of everything. There is simply no argument about this. The only disagreement is how much SFUSD can afford to give and where those dollars will come from.

Last week, State Superintendent of Schools issued a letter stating that the district’s finances were such that the current offer to teachers would require either an increase in revenue or further cuts (http://portal.sfusd.edu/data/home/Letter%20from%20Jack%20OConnell.pdf). The union has provided its own analysis strongly critiquing this position (http://www.uesf.org/district_finances.pdf).

As with the school closures and the support staff strike, and as has been noted by others, the public at large is left to wonder what to make of these two contradictory financial pictures. The lack of data simply gives us no way to bring the two together. The only reasonable response is for the district to answer the continued call for an independent financial audit that results in a public report. Having a grasp of the “real” numbers is what we all need to know in order to make or support the decisions that lie ahead.

If the financial situation is as tight as our district analysts believe, we all need to know where the cuts will come from to meet the “costs of doing business” that adequately compensating teachers will mean. Paying teachers fairly is a high priority. If we don’t meet it, we will continue to loose highly qualified individuals to other areas and other industries. But at the same time, we need to know how the districts resources will shift to support such a prioritization. A transparent and defensible process for making these decisions will be key.

April 10th is only a few days away. Parents and guardians are talking about what to do to help avert a strike (reading all of the financial information, sending email to Board of Education members, writing letters to state representatives and the Governor demanding our Prop. 98 money back) and are just now beginning to face the challenge of what to do if there is indeed a strike.

With the district last night determining to hire as “substitute workers” uncredentialed individuals who meet a minimum of requirements, school communities will have an extra incentive over and above supporting picketing teachers to organize safe places for their children to be during a strike. Some of us will be able to respect a picket line, but some families simply have no choice. Imagining children at schools staffed with people who have no experience teaching but simply have a college degree is not comforting. Alternatives such as temporary child care at recreation centers to strike schools all need to be explored.

However this contract is settled, we must start right away on working to prevent another such impasse from occurring in the future. Given the lack of support from the State and the federal government, there is only one place to turn, and that is to our own city, one of the richest in the nation. Our schools have received great support in the recent past, but it’s time for something much bolder and more stable–a parcel tax. Such a a source is really the only way that we can be assured that we have reliable means for providing the type of education we know kids need.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and is the president of the board of directors of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco (http://www.ppssf.org).

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