Ramona school district braces for strike

By Maureen Robertson

They hope it doesn’t happen, but say they’ll be prepared if it does.

That’s how Ramona school district leaders are dealing with the possibility of a teachers strike.

On Monday, the district’s website showed a job announcement for emergency substitute teachers — at $275 per day. The notice states that Ramona Unified is recruiting applicants “to serve in the event of a teacher strike.”

This is a proactive measure, school board president Bob Stoody said Tuesday morning, explaining that the trustees must vote before the district can hire anyone at that rate, and they have taken no such action. The district currently pays $95 a day for its substitute teachers.

“I don’t anticipate a strike,” he said. “The one thing that really needs to be communicated, I know myself and the rest of the board, we really value the teachers...and it is our hope there wouldn’t be a strike,” said Stoody. “But we have to be ready. We hope we can come to a solution and there would be no strike.”

Superintendent Bob Graeff agreed, saying the job posting is a precautionary measure. The teachers on several occasions have threatened to strike, and the district must prepare “in case that may happen,” he said Tuesday.

“Is there going to be a strike?” he asked. “I don’t know. They’ve talked about it a lot. They’re saying they’re prepared to stage one. Our response is that we will hope negotiations will continue and will prove fruitful.”

If teachers strike, “we will keep our schools open and keep students safe,” Graeff said.

Negotiation teams for the teachers and the district met last Thursday for four hours in a mediation environment, but again did not reach an agreement.

After face-to-face negotiations and then mediation failed earlier this school year, a California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) hearing called a fact finding hearing was held in late February. The teachers and the district each chose one fact finding panel member and a third member, considered a neutral party, served as panel chair. The report from that hearing has not yet been released but is expected soon.

The district has 10 days after the teachers and the district receive the report to make it public.

Details of negotiations sessions are confidential, but the district’s “latest and best” public offer to the teachers is an 8 percent cut this school year and a 9.5 percent cut the following two years. Teachers union representatives have said the district rejected a 4.5 percent cut the union proposed. The teachers have options for compensation cuts such as salary, paying a portion of the health benefit package the district now pays for entirely, and a reduced school year.

During the fact finding hearing, other numbers apparently were discussed. In her communication with teachers after last week’s mediation, Ramona Teachers Association President Donna Braye-Romero said, “We were shocked and angered when the district came back with a larger cut than the one they asked for during fact finding. We realized there was no point in pursuing negotiations any further.”

RTA scheduled a general meeting of the teachers for Tuesday, April 10.

“We anticipate the fact finding report will be in and we will discuss the results at that time,” Braye-Romero said.

“They raised the ante,” she told the Sentinel. “They told us they wanted to meet, they wanted to settle this, and then they come back with a higher cut...It’s been a very frustrating day.”

The framework of last week’s mediation, in which the teachers negotiations team met in Montecito High School’s multipurpose room and the district’s team met in the human resources conference room in the district building, created “a lot of opportunity for miscommunication,” said Graeff.

“We’re working through it,” he said. “...We’re trying to find common ground. Eventually, we have to.”

Stoody said that his understanding of the process is that, if an agreement isn’t reached in the fact finding hearing, “things can get worse, more time’s gone by...everything reverts back to the last best offer.”

The district’s last best offer is less than it proposed before voters in November approved passage of the Proposition 30 tax initiative, noted Stoody.

“Because of Proposition 30, as we had agreed, we adjusted it down,” he said. “...I’d like to give them all a raise and not talk about cuts. It’s important that they know that we do value the teachers, but we also have to stay in business.”

In a recent budget report, Assistant Superintendent David Ostermann said the district faces projected deficits of $1.7 million in 2013-14 and $8.9 million in 2014-15. Teacher representatives challenged those projections, saying the district’s ending balances historically are more than projections.

“There is no doubt RUSD is facing financial difficulties,” Grant McNiff, chief negotiator for the teachers, said at the trustee’s March meeting. “We all know that. But we also have a trust issue in Ramona.”

   
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