By Maureen Robertson
Calls of “recall” and “shame on you” followed the school board vote Monday night to impose cuts of approximately 7.8 percent for teachers this year and 9.4 percent for the next two school years.
Schools will be closed from May 20 to 24 to account for five of the six unpaid furlough days trustees approved. Teachers will pay a portion of their health benefit costs, retroactive to February. Teachers opting out of district health benefits will receive a $1,500 annual stipend this year but not for the next two years, according to the three-year agreement.
The 4-0-1 vote, with Trustee John Rajcic voting “present,” follows about 18 months of unsuccessful negotiations and mediation sessions with the Ramona Teachers Association, and a fact-finding hearing and report overseen by the state Public Employment Relations Board.
Because this year’s cuts are retroactive, they will be split between teachers’ May and June paychecks.
Teacher representatives have the “right to meet and negotiate with the district concerning any term and condition of employment implemented herein or any other negotiable subject” with a written request from the Ramona Teachers
Association, the agreement states.
“They still have a chance to come back,” said Superintendent Robert Graeff. “RTA can come back in to restructure the proposal...I hope they come back.”
Facing a packed Ramona High auditorium that topped 300 people, trustees heard impassioned pleas from teachers, parents, residents, and students not to endorse the cuts as proposed.
The teachers union executive board has approved a strike authorization vote of union members. “The date, though imminent, is yet to be determined,” said a statement from the union.
“It’s as if Mommy and Daddy are getting a divorce and we are stuck in the middle,” said Ramona High School senior Marissa Martinez, asking trustees to think about “who is really stuck in this situation.”
Cuts in state revenue of about 20 percent, declining student enrollment resulting in an annual loss of $3.5 million, increased costs, spending district reserves, and a loan a previous board took that was to be paid with developer fees are among reasons given for the district’s fiscal woes.
“My job is to make sure that this district stays solvent, and state takeover is not the answer,” Trustee Kim Lasley said. “I am very sad that it has come to this.”
The economic downturn the past several years has affected many, including her family, she said, adding, “I know what it is like to almost lose your home...We are doing what is needed to remain solvent and keep our schools open so the employees can get paid and for our kids to be safe.”
Trustees and the superintendent faced a barrage of accusations and criticism at the board’s meetings Monday and last Tuesday.
“Many people will probably lose their homes,” teacher Bo Varnado said. “...I hope you realize the enormity of this
If they beat down their employees when it isn’t necessary, they’ll be remembered as the “bullies they pretend not to be," Grant McNiff, chief negotiator for the teachers union, said.
“You have a terrible job to do, but please, oh please, oh please, let’s do it with respect, let’s do it with dignity, let’s do it with honesty, let’s develop the trust that needs to happen so we can all come through this process not as ‘them’ and ‘us,’ but a ‘we,’ moving forward,” said 11-year Ramona resident Joyce Daubert, who is a retired Poway teacher and former Poway Federation of Teachers negotiator.
She questioned “a mysterious $800,000 that didn’t turn up in the budget when the fact finding took place, and now exists in the world.”
The district’s second interim budget report, required by the state, had a projected ending balance about $800,000 higher than the first report, Assistant Superintendent David Ostermann said Tuesday. The report came after material for the February fact-finding hearing was prepared, but it is Ostermann’s understanding that it was included in the fact-finding discussion.
“These teachers give their life’s blood,” said parent Joy Plantz, one of 22 people to speak Monday. “...Everybody has the same goal in mind. Why can’t there be a medium found?”
She believes “the district is arguing that the glass is half empty and the teachers are arguing that the glass is half full, and there needs to be better communication.”
The cuts to teachers amount to $1.6 million this year and $5.4 million after three years, said Donna Braye-Romero, teachers union president.
“Our local economy cannot endure such a hit,” she said. “...You need to stop what you’re doing and find a way to compromise, not just dictate what you will take.”
Mike Zehm, Ramona Elementary teacher for 32 years, said he no longer trusts district leadership.
“Their greatest interest this year has been paying off the district debts on the backs of the employees,” he said.
One assistant superintendent has left, another is leaving, and five schools will have new principals next year, he said.
“I know that the district leaders think that they are sailing into the 21st century of learning, but I see the district as a ship not only losing the wind in its sales, but one without a rudder.”
Calling for a one-year agreement rather than three, teacher Lezlie Mitchell asked the board to direct the superintendent to “look into additional avenues for balancing the budget.”
Another teacher, Rebecca Pierce, said her application for a home loan will be in jeopardy, and teacher Cori McDonald said teachers are willing to take necessary cuts, but why so much?
“I hope that what you impose is necessary and not just what you can,” she said.
Reduced compensation for teachers is the last of several steps the district has taken to reduce costs, Graeff said.
Support and management employees agreed to similar cuts earlier in the year, and other cuts included eliminating several administrative and management jobs, laying off classroom teachers, not replacing employees who have retired or resigned, and eliminating music for elementary students, summer school, and the Gifted and Talented Education program, he said. Cutbacks in classroom supplies, textbooks, and equipment also have been made, he noted.
After voters approved Proposition 30 in November, the district reduced the percentage of proposed cuts for teachers and reimbursed a portion of cuts already approved by other employees, Graeff said.
Also, nearly 40 percent of Ramona’s teachers will receive a 5 percent pay raise next year, as a result of step and column, he said, referring to salary increases resulting from longevity with the district or receiving additional education.
McNiff said the teachers’ negotiating team will meet to discuss what can be done to change the board’s mind.
“We’ll get through this,” he said. “We’ll get through this.”