Teachers don’t have contract yet | SierraSun.com

Teachers don’t have contract yet

The teachers want their COLA.

With just weeks left before the school year draws to a close, teachers in the Tahoe-Truckee Unified School District find themselves still without a contract for the current school year. Negotiations between the district and the teachers’ union (TTEA) representatives have been ongoing since October.

However, a combination of unprecedented mid-year state budget cuts for education, increasing healthcare costs and disagreements over the exact size of the district’s bank account have impeded that process.

The district has already offered a 1 percent pay increase with possible end of the year bonuses (depending on TTUSD’s year-end reserves).

However, according to Nancy Kerr, Sierra Mountain Middle School teacher and member of the TTEA negotiating team, that offer is unacceptable in the face of rapidly increasing healthcare costs for district employees.

“The community needs to understand that our healthcare costs are increasing at about $85 per month, which means about a 2 percent loss in wages,” Kerr said. “When the district offered us a 1 percent increase, they were, in effect, asking us to take a pay cut because we’d be paying more for insurance without being compensated for it. That is absolutely unacceptable. I’ve taught here for 22 years and in that time, I’ve never been asked to take a pay cut.”

Kerr said TTEA believes that the district has the ability to offer teachers the 3.87 percent state COLA (cost of living allowance) that numerous other districts, with similar financial situations, have been able to provide their employees.

“The problem lies in the fact that there are differences of opinion in regards to the status of the district’s finances and that’s why we’re at an impasse,” Kerr said.

According to TTUSD Superintendent Pat Gemma, TTEA and the district have been in disagreement over roughly $1 million in district funds.

“So far, we’ve had two sessions with a state mediator, with our third and final session scheduled for May 16, ” Gemma said. “If no agreement is reached at that point, the mediator can certify us to go into a fact-finding session, in which both sides make a case to a certified fact-finder.”

Gemma said the district has also offered to bring in an outside party to clear up any disagreements.

“We believe that the district’s offer of a 1 percent increase is unsatisfactory, and have been trying to show that there is more money available for pay increases than what they’re claiming,” Merriman said. “The problem is that it’s very difficult to pin down exactly how much money is there.”

An unsigned memo circulated among teachers over the last few weeks questions how other districts in the state with similar financial situations have been able to offer their employees the COLA.

The memo cited South Lake Tahoe, as a district with similar “weather, geography, student population and needs,” as well as a “decline in students population that mirrors our own.

“There appears to be no significant distinction between Tahoe-Truckee and South Lake – certainly no distinction great enough to explain why South Lake teachers received the COLA this year and why we cannot,” the memo states.

Gemma responded that South Lake Tahoe has maintained a higher reserve for economic uncertainties than TTUSD and therefore, has more money for such increases.

“As things are now, we are mandated by the state to maintain a 3 percent reserve,” he said. “This year, we’re expected to finish with a 3.5 percent reserve, a half of a percent less than we were originally hoping for. That 3.5 percent factors in the 1 percent increase for wages that we’ve offered. If we offer anything more, we run the risk of dropping below that 3 percent and subsequently, risk the state having to step in and take over the district.”

Should the district end up with more than their projected year-end balance, that money would be funneled back into teachers’ salaries in the form of bonuses, Gemma said.

Some people question why the district wants to maintain a higher reserve than is mandated, since that money could go towards salary increases.

“Each year our costs keep going up, however, we keep losing students and therefore, we aren’t bringing in any more money to keep up with those increasing costs,” he said.

“We’re expecting some extremely tough times next year and we want to be prepared for that financially. Our goal is to have a 4 percent reserve, which we’re not even going to meet this year, because [a 4 percent reserve] is good business. It’s prudent and it’s what the county recommends. To have anything less doesn’t make any sense in terms of fiscal management, because if we just have the bare minimum and run into unexpected costs, such a lawsuit, we run the risk of bankrupting the district.”

Meanwhile, as the district and TTEA continue to haggle behind closed doors, teachers are growing restless.

Last week, more than 100 teachers took their concerns to the streets for an informational march down Donner Pass Road from Bank of the West to the district office.

Some held multicolored signs asking for a COLA while others passed out informational flyers to pedestrians and cars passing by.

“I’m out here today because so far we haven’t been given a contract and because I’m tired of hearing about the 1 percent increase that the district is offering us,” said Vince Bruno, a teacher from Sierra Mountain Middle School. “It’s really a slap in the face to the teachers here, especially with skyrocketing healthcare costs.”

Superintendent Gemma said as healthcare is a “common enemy” for everyone in the district, TTUSD has begun looking at alternatives to the district’s current provider, Schools Insurance Group (SIG). On May 21, two insurance companies will make presentations to district and union representatives.

As both sides stand poised for their last mediation session on Thursday, Merriman said even if negotiations fail and are continued into next year, teachers would not strike.

“I still believe in the negotiating process and feel that we’ll be able to get the job done,” he said. “Things are beginning to look better, especially after the eight-hour meeting we had with the district on Monday. We think that we’re finally reaching an agreement on the district’s numbers, which has been a major frustration up until this point.”

Merriman added that he hopes the public realizes just how hard the teachers in the district work.

“I think that some of the public sees teachers as people who get three months off each year, yet are always whining about salaries,” Merriman said. “We’re not whining.”