List of comparable districts? What list?

As the threat of a teachers’ strike edges nearer, details such as which school districts compare to the Chico Unified School District and whose side is playing fairly really stick out.

The list of 20 “comparable districts” that have long been used as a basis to decide how Chico measures up in terms of remuneration essentially has been tossed out the window by CUSD officials in recent weeks.

It’s not just that times have changed and the idea of what districts are similar to the CUSD must change with it; the district now says it’s not sure it ever agreed those schools were comparable to Chico schools.

“I have never found anywhere the district said it agreed on [those comparables],” said Jim Sands, assistant superintendent for the CUSD.

The thing is, the CUSD has been trotting out the same list for years, especially when the numbers made the district look good.

For example, two firms hired to analyze the district’s budget and pay scales—Killian Management Services, in January 1997, and School Services of California, in February 1999—both used those 20 schools “of similar size and total revenues” to arrive at a variety of conclusions—such as that the CUSD offered retiree benefits that were way above normal, or that administrators were comparatively underpaid.

And when the school board agreed with Superintendent Scott Brown in May 2000 to lay off clerical workers at the junior high schools, it looked to that same list of districts to prove Chico had a comparatively high number of clerks at that grade level.

Contract negotiations between the CUSD and the Chico Unified Teachers Association failed this year, and the sides are now awaiting the release of a panel’s fact-finding report, due July 2.

In the meantime, the union has stepped up its efforts to convince members they’re getting a raw deal compared to their counterparts in similar districts. If the CUSD doesn’t give Chico teachers a raise similar to that received by its comparables, they’ll be at or near the bottom of the list, related one recent union missive.

The CUTA dug up the pay increase percentages that most of those other 20 had districts settled on with their teachers’ unions and found that a full dozen of them agreed on 10 percent or more, which is about what the CUTA is asking for. Union rhetoric or smart use of hard numbers? To CUSD officials, the point is moot, because they don’t want to hear about those 20 districts.

“Our interpretation is that 18 of the 20 comparables are not losing enrollment,” Brown said. “These no longer apply.”

The districts are: Antioch, Apple Valley, Azusa, Burbank, Coachella Valley, Covina Valley, El Rancho, Folsom-Cordova, Hemet, Livermore Valley, Lompoc, Manteca, Marysville, New Haven, Paramount, Santa Clara, Tustin, Upland, Vacaville and Walnut Valley.

At a June 2 fact-finding session, the CUSD showed up with its own list of comparables, most of them districts in counties bordering Butte that are similarly facing decreased enrollment. (Included, for example, are the Paradise, Durham, and Gridley districts.)

As CUTA President Dan Sours remembers it, the union presented the list almost a decade ago, and the district, rather than disputing it, starting using it as well.

There are several methods of coming up with “comparable districts,” a common way for school districts to gauge how they’re doing. A search called “find districts like mine” on the Web site of the California nonprofit Education Data Partnership coughed up a list of 11 unified districts: Tracy, Apple Valley, Livermore Valley, Hesperia, Folsom-Cordova, Vacaville, Lake Elsinore, Temecula Valley, Napa Valley, Manteca and Ventura.

But Ed Data’s list comes with the caveat that “California districts are similar—and different.” While districts may share many characteristics, like the percentage of students who qualify for free meals, further details such as, for example, city versus rural setting may skew the situation.

So, if the CUSD isn’t looking at the right schools, is it going to try for a list of new ones that the union will also agree on?

“I think it may or may not be time for a new list, but it’s certainly time to reconsider what’s unique about Chico,” Brown said.

Sours said the CUTA would have been willing to sit down and hash out a new list. "The first step might have been mentioning it," he said wryly.