Bass Lake Joint Union Elementary School District and its teachers are deadlocked on a proposed raise and, without a finalized deal, will head to mediation.
Additionally, the Bass Lake Teachers Association (BLTA), with about 45 members, claims the district has avoided nearly $1 million in classroom expenses the last five years.
The union and district have been negotiating a new contract for months, as their previous agreement ran until June 30.
BLTA is seeking a 5% raise in a two-year contract, while the district has offered 4% as well as a small bonus and condensed salary schedule, which would equate an additional 1.4%, according to district officials. The additional percent would be around $33,000 when based on teacher salaries of $3.38 million in the 2015-2016 approved operating budget, with total expenditures at $8.3 million.
BLTA representative Tim McGrew, a seventh grade teacher at Oak Creek Intermediate, said though that extra percent may not seem significant, it could make a “major difference” after cuts made during the national recession.
He said ever since those cuts, largely in the 2010-2011 school year, the district’s reserves have remained excessively high, possibly to remain overly conservative on the fiscal end. The state requires a 4% reserve, while Joint Union’s was 28.52% in 2010-2011 and has declined to 22.13%, or $1.7 million last year, with further declines projected in the future.
“Our contention is that there’s money in the budget that should be spent but isn’t,” McGrew said. “We think it should be.”
Elementary school districts in California average an 18.96% reserve.
Also the BLTA contends, though it’s not directly part of the negotiations, that the district should stop filing for exemptions from California Education Code 41372, which requires at least 60% of the annual budget be spent on teacher salaries and benefits.
The district has filed an exemption since the 2010-2011 school year, when it cut classroom aides and other expenditures, such as additional bus routes, to help balance finances during an ongoing recession.
Maureen Hester, director of business services, said around 40% of elementary school districts in California regularly file for exemptions from the code, one she and superintendent Glenn Reid called “old and outdated.”
“There’s a conflict between this code and the reality today in terms of what we have to spend money on,” Reid said. “Even if we give teachers more money for supplies like paper, pencils, computers, training, that doesn’t count as part of their salaries, even though it’s helping students.”
The problem, Reid said, is if the district adds any expenditure to its yearly budget, then that increases the amount they must spend on salaries to meet the 60% requirement. Also, revenue increases this year are from “one-time funds” through the state to match levels from 2007-2008, Hester said, and district officials don’t want to spend their way into a fiscal crisis as costs on everything, from utilities to bus fuel, have risen since then.
“The last time we went through a recession with the state, we made a lot of cuts to meet the deficit,” Hester said. “These are things where we’ve already taken the fruit off the tree, and we have to be very careful moving forward, because the last thing you want to do is cut student programs. We’ve gone through this once, and if we get another recession without properly preparing for it, it’s going to be tough.”
The BLTA instead argues the district is no longer in a turbulent economic state, and that bringing back their classroom aides, as well as the 5% raise, will satisfy their demands while providing better education for students.
“Not having the aides was probably a financial necessity for the district, and it’s not any more,” McGrew said. “Our contention is the money should be spent, not just on us but on students by adding classroom support, which benefits students and teachers directly. Extra support is helpful and financially sound.”
Despite their differences, McGrew said negotiations have been reasonable and honest, and the BLTA has no plans for a strike or any action that could threaten the district, financially or otherwise.
“Teachers like this district, we like working there, and we love the kids,” McGrew said. “Our concerns aren’t meant to be an attack. We feel we have legitimate concerns, and there’s a difference of opinion here to some degree.”
Bass Lake Joint Union Elementary School District contains Oakhurst Elementary School, Wasuma Elementary School, Oak Creek Intermediate, and Fresno Flats Day School.