CUSD, teachers’ union say where the money went

Mummed by a mediator during contract negotiations, Chico Unified School District officials are ungagged and now have plenty to say about why they believe the CUSD can’t afford to offer teachers as much of a raise as they’re seeking.

In a press conference held Tuesday, April 24, at the District Office, Superintendent Scott Brown said the district values teachers and wants to give them more of the unexpected money it got from the state this year, but what with rising energy costs, another student enrollment slide and money owed for past special-education services, it can’t.

“As educators, our first responsibility is to the students,” Brown said. And, he said, if the district pays the 10-plus percent raise the teachers are asking for, it will have to pay the piper with cuts to programs and services later.

Brown outlined the “threats to its solvency that [the CUSD] has not experienced before,” saying the expected decrease in enrollment by 135 at the elementary level would take away $603,000, the district’s power bill would go up $500,000, and its share of a court-ordered “billback” for special-education services will be $1.3 million.

A state-appointed mediator agreed that the sides should be certified to “fact-finding"—a process through which representatives chosen by each party, plus an independent third panelist, meet and issue a report that acts as a guide for settlement. If they still can’t agree, the district can impose an offer and the teachers can strike.

CUTA members were set April 26 to rally and vote on whether to authorize their board to call for a strike vote in the coming months.

Jim Sands, assistant superintendent for the CUSD, relayed the offers that went back and forth during mediation. Talks stalled, and the sides left the bargaining table with the CUTA asking for an additional 5.5 percent salary increase retroactive to July 2000 and 4.5 percent plus the 3.9 percent COLA (cost-of-living adjustment) in 2001-02. The district left offering a 4 percent raise back to January 2001 and a raise equivalent to the COLA starting this July.

Sands said that with the 2.5 percent enrollment-based raise negotiated in 1999, plus an extra day added with pay, teachers are already getting 3.04 percent more this school year. “All of these proposals center around 10 percent, plus COLA, and that’s not including the 3.04 percent they already got this year,” he said. The median teacher salary is $45,713, not counting about $7,500 in benefits.

Later that day, the union countered with a press conference of its own.

The CUTA also used the district’s own figures on what happened to the $6.6 million “extra” that Gov. Gray Davis sent along. The school board voted to buy a computerized student information system, pay off debt and replace old equipment, leaving $1.7 million of the mostly unrestricted money up for grabs, presumably on an ongoing basis ($2.7 million, however, went toward employee raises).

The CUTA listed the 20 districts agreed on as comparable to the CUSD, and eight Northstate districts, noting that almost all of them had settled with their teachers for double-digit salary increases. But Brown said those very districts are now cutting their budgets to make up for the raises.

Sticking in the union’s craw are school trustees’ promises they heard back in 1998 and 1999: That if the district had more money, it would love to give it to teachers.

Now that more hasn’t been passed along, said CUTA Crisis Chairman Joe Asnault, there’s little “feeling of being respected employees in the district.”

"We want to avoid a strike," he said, but, "if it comes down to it…."