Deal is off

Durham school board votes down contested tentative agreement

Jennifer Hedlund and her son Justin, a student at Durham Elementary School, both spoke on behalf of Durham Unified School District teachers who’ve been working without a contract since 2015 at a board meeting last week.

Jennifer Hedlund and her son Justin, a student at Durham Elementary School, both spoke on behalf of Durham Unified School District teachers who’ve been working without a contract since 2015 at a board meeting last week.

Photo by Ken Smith

‘A couple of months ago, I told a lie and I got in trouble, big time,” said 9-year-old Justin Hedlund as he addressed the Durham Unified School District’s board of trustees on Jan. 18. “I got suspended from school, grounded at home and all my electronics were taken away. But worst of all, I lost the trust of people around me.”

Justin, a fourth-grader at Durham Elementary School, continued speaking about the impact of his dishonesty, his attempts to regain trust and the importance of keeping one’s word. And then he drove his point home. “Your words are your honor. … I ask the school board members to honor their words and keep their own promise of honoring the agreement they already signed, before all trust in them is lost.”

The crowd of about 100 people, filling lunch tables in the Durham Elementary School cafeteria behind Justin, erupted in cheers and applause as he finished speaking. The phrase “honor your words” was repeated by many of the Durham parents, teachers, students and community members who spoke after Justin, the majority of whom urged the board to accept a tentative agreement signed by the district and the Durham Unified Teachers Association in October.

The board balked at ratifying the agreement in November, citing a computational error in the document that would result in bigger raises than intended. During last week’s meeting, school board President Ed McLaughlin said the contract in question would result in an 11 percent total hike rather than the 9 percent raise—spread over three years—the district says it agreed to. The issue hung in limbo until last week’s contentious board meeting, when the tentative agreement was shot down by a 4-to-1 vote.

Teachers in the DUSD have been working without a contract since their last one expired on July 1, 2015, and say they make less than teachers in other Butte County districts. Other details of the contested agreement included lessening the time it takes for a teacher to reach the maximum salary schedule, from 32 to 26 years.

The district’s website still links to an Oct. 21 announcement that a tentative contract agreement for the 2015-16 through 2017-18 school years was worked out in a 6 1/2-hour mediation session two days prior.

Davis Van Arsdale, DUTA president and a math teacher in Durham, said Tuesday (Jan. 24) that the document the district now objects to was reviewed three times and signed by both parties during that marathon meeting. He also said the district’s renege on the deal resulted in the union filing a complaint with the Public Employment Relations Board in mid-November because, by law, district officials have to support a tentative deal signed by their representatives.

“Not only did the district not support it, they came out publicly and said the board can’t agree to this, and that it’s a bad contract,” Van Arsdale said.

Since Jan. 16, as a form of protest, Durham teachers have been working hours according to the precise terms of their expired contract, meaning they are on duty only for 15 minutes before and after school and close their classrooms during breaks and lunch. The teachers say they normally put far more hours than that into preparing their lessons, tutoring, overseeing clubs and extra-curricular activities, as well as other expected duties. Van Arsdale said this will continue until a final contract is signed.

The district contends that the tentative agreement, as it stands, would create an overwhelming financial hardship.

The ongoing disagreement has resulted in turmoil in the community and some tense moments at last week’s school board meeting.

At one point, a man began to speak from the floor and McLaughlin cut him off: “I’m not talking to you,” he said loudly. “I’m talking to the general, reasonable people out in the crowd.”

“You, sir, are stunningly superficial,” the man retorted as he rose and left the building.

There were also some tears during the hour-long public comment period. Ellese Mello Buttitta, an alumna of the district’s schools, faced her former teachers rather than the board, addressing some by name and crediting them with her decision to become a teacher herself. She grew tearful when explaining that she teaches in another district where her salary schedule is $10,000 higher than it would be in DUSD.

“Justice needs to happen because I, at 14 years [of teaching], shouldn’t be making more than my teachers and mentors,” she said.

As contentious as the meeting became, a pin drop could be heard when it came time for the five-member board to vote. All but one trustee, Kathy Horn, voted to reject the tentative agreement.

Explaining his decision to vote against, trustee Lance Smith said he believes the teachers deserve a raise, but that the agreement was flawed. “I would be saddling this district with a financial hardship that we could not come out from underneath,” he said.

On Tuesday, Van Arsdale said that, though the teachers had hoped for a different outcome, he’s glad the board made a decision so that contract negotiations can continue. DUTA and DUSD representatives will meet for a fact-finding session in Sacramento on Jan. 31.