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West Contra Costa schools to reopem

UPDATE: WCCUSD teachers vote for tentative contract

on February 13, 2023

A potential strike and district-wide shutdown has likely been avoided after West Contra Costa Unified School District and the United Teachers of Richmond reached a tentative three-year contract agreement Friday, the union said in a newsletter Monday.

On Friday, 73% of the 1,182 members casting ballots voted to ratify the deal.

Since negotiations began a year ago, WCCUSD and UTR have been unable to agree on salary and on contract language regarding Community Schools, a strategy that focuses on partnerships between schools, community agencies and local government to improve student outcomes.

In a newsletter Monday from union President John Zabala, the district tentatively agreed to a 7% raise for this year (retroactive to July 1) and a 7.5% increase starting next July. WCCUSD also fully agreed to UTR’s proposal for Community Schools, which prioritizes “physically and emotionally safe schools,” “permanent, certified educators in every classroom” and “uplifting community voices through shared decision making.”

WCCUSD has received the state’s fifth-largest Community Schools implementation grant at $30 million. The district and UTR, according to WCCUSD spokesperson Liz Sanders, had been at odds on whether Community Schools language should exist in a memorandum of understanding or within the contract. The tentative agreement states the strategy will be included as an article in the contract. 

The agreement also includes a myriad of items, such as installing MERV-13 and HEPA filters in all classrooms; implementing procedures for educators to document safety concerns; providing educators with trauma-informed de-escalation strategies; maintaining classroom size caps; fully implementing Community Schools shared decision making through 2027 or later. 

Zabala also said the district agreed to include mental health in the definition of why an educator can take a personal day. 

“This may seem small, but this will begin to change the conversation on the stigma around educator mental health needs,” Zabala wrote.

UTR originally asked for a 10% raise for this year, 7% for next year and a percentage based on the cost-of-living adjustment for the following year. UTR bargaining Chair Mark Moran said the district had previously countered this demand with “insulting” offers.

As a result, district leadership called an impasse in November, citing difficulties reaching an understanding about balancing competitive salaries and WCCUSD’s fiscal solvency. 

In September, the Contra Costa County Office of Education informed WCCUSD it was “no longer fiscally healthy” and at risk of being taken over by the state. 

Mediation between the two sides and a neutral third-party ultimately failed, resulting in WCCUSD and UTR deciding to enter the fact-finding phase, which was supposed to occur on Thursday. After a neutral party had published a public report on the facts, along with suggestions for solving the impasse, WCCUSD would have had the chance to make one final offer to UTR. If UTR was dissatisfied with this offer, a strike would have likely occurred. 

What led to the impasse?

Zabala said the pandemic exacerbated already-present issues in WCCUSD. He said educators were feeling disconnected before the pandemic, especially because of public attacks about what they should and shouldn’t be teaching. During the pandemic, they had to take on more stress regarding their students’ safety. Afterward, Zabala said, the public’s needs skyrocketed, and, as public servants, educators took on the brunt of that. 

This played out as WCCUSD needed to tighten its budget. Zabala said teachers haven’t received a raise since the early days of the pandemic. 

“People are really burnt out,” Zabala said. “They’re really tired, but they also really care about this work. That’s why I think they’re doing this. The easy way forward is just to accept what they’re being given or go to another district. But people really want to make it work here.”

Jeffrey Bean, who has taught elementary students in WCCUSD since 2014 and is a UTR picket captain, said district leadership is too disconnected from what is going on in the schools. 

“I think the people who are in high positions should be at school all the time seeing what’s going on, so they have the same connection to students and the same investment in students that we have,” Bean said. 

Sanders said there seems to be a lack of trust between UTR and the district, as well as misunderstandings about WCCUSD’s fiscal reality. Sanders said moving forward, that trust has to be restored.

District realities include bleak budget projections and a teacher shortage that has threatened programs and forced teachers to take on additional classroom responsibilities. Bean said he believes WCCUSD has a bigger teacher shortage than other districts because its salaries have been significantly lower. 

“If I were a new teacher, I would not come to WCCUSD, I’d go to Martinez or Mt. Diablo or Berkeley,” Bean said. 

According to the California Department of Education, in 2021-2022 school year, the average teacher salary was $83,724 in Mt. Diablo Unified; $91,693 and $105,703, respectively, at San Rafael City Elementary and City High; and $87,754 in Berkeley Unified. WCCUSD’s was at $77,994, down from $79,265 in the previous school year. 

What happens next?

If there was one thing WCCUSD and UTR agreed on through the process, it was that neither wanted a strike to occur. 

Both Zabala and Moran said a UTR strike would have likely resulted in a districtwide shut-down, because other labor unions associated with the AFL-CIO would have honored the strike. That includes the Teamsters, which represent the district’s classified employees, as well as delivery drivers and garbage collectors.

UTR will be holding two town halls for members this week to discuss the tentative agreement and the path forward. Voting on the agreement will take place electronically from Wednesday through Friday, with the result announced Friday night. 

Zabala said he thinks the majority will vote to pass the agreement. 

“It is also important that we are clear, our educators deserve more!” Zabala wrote in the newsletter. “Although this salary increase will move us above the current state average, this raise does not keep up with inflation. Despite that, your UTR leadership and bargaining team believe that we have fought hard and have received the limits of compensation available at this time.”

People of Richmond: How would you improve WCCUSD schools?

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