Upland Teachers Assail School District Superintendent As Too Tightfisted

Teachers in the Upland Unified School District in recent weeks have upped the intensity of their efforts to bring protracted contract and salary negotiations to a close on terms they are advocating.
After more than seven years of stasis, contract negotiations between the Upland Teachers Association and the District were initiated in February 2015 and salary discussions began in August 2015. There have been a bevy of proposals and counterproposals, but no success in coming to a mutual accommodation.
At least as early as January, yard signs purporting to quote an Upland teacher stating, “I don’t want to strike but I will” began appearing on some front lawns. Within the last fortnight, large scale protests involving placard and picket carrying members of the Upland Teachers Association have been carried out on the Euclid Avenue median and sidewalk near the district office just south of Upland City Hall. The slogans in play include: “Not On Strike Yet” and “You Can’t Put Students First If You Put Teachers Last” and “Fair Settlement Now” and “2016 Standards and 2007 Salaries” and “Keep Upland Schools Great.”
According to the protestors, they have not had a salary increase since 2007. They decry the imposition of demands upon teachers in terms of extra training they must get to implement additional curriculum, in particular the so-called Common Core academic standards being pushed by the State Department of Education, while conversely citing the district administration’s decision to bring in consultants and outside educators to assist in implementing the Common Cause curriculum.
With the district refusing to yield to union demands, the standoff has devolved into an ad hominem attack upon superintendent Nancy Kelly, whom the teachers have accused of a “failure to provide leadership.” Last week, 449 of the Upland Teachers Association’s 563 members participated in a referendum on Kelly’s leadership in which 434 cast votes of no confidence in her.
Under the withering charges, Kelly insisted the district has made a good faith effort, given the stark and austere parameters it must function within, to come to a fair accommodation with the teachers. She said at least some of the hostility that has been directed at her is a product of a misunderstanding and misreading of the district’s actual financial condition. She acknowledged that the teachers have not had a salary increase in eight years and that there has been a moderate improvement in the district’s financial picture that will allow for some level of salary adjustments. Nevertheless, she said, Upland Unified was e harshly hit by the economic downturn that hit the nation, state and region in 2007 and persisted for nearly seven years. In 2013, Kelly said, the district found itself in the midst of a structural deficit that led to a threatened takeover by the state. Through serious fiscal discipline which included $5 million in employee concessions for one year, she said, the district had mapped its way out of that deficit. To reengage itself in unbridled spending at this point would throw the district back into a structural deficit, she insisted.
Elements within the union, keying on salary and benefit adjustments made in other districts in the region that have not had the axiological financial challenges Upland Unified has faced, she said, are drawing the unwarranted conclusion that the district can sustain the level of spending that would be required to meet the union’s demands.
Keeping the district solvent involves mathematical reality that she is bound by, Kelly said, despite well-rehearsed and pointed statements to the contrary. She marshaled numbers to prove her point. The district had, Kelly said, offered the teachers an ongoing seven percent salary increase, augmented with a one-time six percent bonus. That offer, Kelly asserted, was the maximum distance the district could go without compromising its financial integrity in the upcoming years. But the union had countered with a demand of a double digit percentage increase the district could in no way meet. At some point, the union gave indication it would be satisfied with a ten percent raise over the life of the contract. But in crunching those numbers, Kelly said, the district would inevitably slip back into the structural deficit it had shed with such painstaking previous effort. The only way, Kelly said, the district could meet the ten percent increase would be if the union compromised on the current arrangement it has for its members with regard to medical coverage. The district covers the entire cost of medical insurance for 96 percent of its employees. The other four percent make up the difference between the cost of the basic medical insurance preferred provider option plan provided to all employees and the more enhanced HMO coverage they receive. At present, Kelly said, the district shells out $14.3 million annually to provide district employees and their families medical insurance. To accommodate the union’s demand for a ten percent raise in salaries, she said some arrangement by which the union members would defray a part of their medical coverage costs was proposed. The union and its members soundly refused to contribute toward their medical plans.
“If we agree to a ten percent increase, it will result in another structural deficit as we experienced in 2013,” she said. “We simply cannot afford it. In order to boost salaries by ten percent we need some concession from them on health coverage. We are one of the few districts around that covers 100 percent of medical costs for 96 percent of our employees.”
Kelly said that the state has freed up funding for school districts up and down the state in recent years and that Upland is no exception. Still, she said, because the district was further behind the eight ball financially than most other districts, that money was committed to paying down previously existing obligations in order to right its listing financial ship.
“Our district did not experience the type of windfall other districts received,” she said. “We were not giving raises over the last two years because we were repairing the structural deficit.”
Kelly said it is not accurate that the district has shut the door entirely on the union.
“We have reached an agreement on several issues,” she said. “The one issue we have not reached agreement on is salary and total compensation.”
Without directly saying so, Kelly essentially acknowledged that being subjected to the vote of no confidence and the obloquy that accompanied the union protests was painful. She said she is not unsympathetic to the teachers.
“I do care a great deal about all or our employees and want them to be well compensated,” she said. “They have not had a salary increase in eight years. I understand their concern. We believe the seven percent offer we proposed in August is substantial and responsible. The ten percent offer we have said we would agree to with their concession on the health care provision would make them among the highest paid teachers in the surrounding region when you consider total compensation.”
At the same time, Kelly said, she is duty bound to protect the fiscal integrity of the district and she is confident that the members of the board understand that.
“If we were to put all available funds into salary increase, we would not be able to spend money toward programs, books and supplies, capital projects and all the other areas of the school district,” she said. “We have to be good and responsible stewards of the trust the public has place in us. I will never make a decision that would result in a structural deficit. It is my responsibility to be firm in this process and make sure that in the middle of what is going on, no matter how difficult it is, that I will not be pressured into making a deal that would damage the financial credibility and integrity of the district.”

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