Teachers say if there’s money, share it

Chico schoolteachers are ready to talk money, but there might not be much to talk about.

In its initial proposal sent to the CUSD Board of Trustees for review at its July 6 meeting, the Chico Unified Teachers Association reveals that it plans to bargain on issues of wages, transfers and reassignments and the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act.

CUTA President George Young confirmed that the union will likely ask for a raise. “Finding the money is going to be the tricky part,” he said. Until the governor announces his budget proposal, Young said, “We’re kind of in a holding pattern here. We don’t even know what to ask for.”

Employees in the Chico Unified School District have already gone three years with no raises other than the “step and column” increases earned via longevity.

Assistant Superintendent Bob Feaster, who is new to the job this year, said, “I think everyone’s been on the same page and realized that it doesn’t make sense to ask for raises when we’re cutting programs.

“The district’s position would be that we’d welcome the opportunity to talk about [raises], but the caveat is if there’s money,” Feaster said. In recent years, the state has passed along a “modest” cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) that has barely been enough to cover the steps and columns increases. Besides teachers, classified employees and administrators have also been without additional raises for three years.

In summer 2001, teachers threatened to strike. The district had offered no raise, even though new money had come its way.

There’s more to contract negotiations than money, however.

Young said the CUTA is as satisfied as it can be with its health care benefits package, given the current state of the industry in the United States. The union had been upset because the district wasn’t paying the full cost of teachers’ health insurance even as it did so for other employee groups. “We weren’t supposed to be talking about health care,” Young said, because the union was locked into a three-year deal. But after talks with the CUSD, “we ended up solving the health care [contract] problems.”

The union has also chosen to negotiate the issue of teacher transfers and reassignments, a long-postponed potential addition to the contract that came to a head with recent school closures. Young said there were cases in which people were involuntarily transferred despite seniority, and also some principals made decisions based on personal, not professional, reasons.

But teachers’ biggest battle may be in Sacramento, acknowledged Young, interviewed while returning from a march on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Los Angeles office. A contingent attending the National Education Association conference presented him with a demand to “fully fund education.”

On the heels of breaking a deal to fully fund Proposition 98, Schwarzenegger has proposed changing teachers’ pension system, moving to a “merit pay” system and lengthening the amount it time it takes to get tenure.

Young and Feaster agreed that the union and district have been working well together. Young said, “It’s taken a long time to get to a position where I trust them because there were so many years of mistrust.”