YERMO — Fifteen months of fruitless negotiations has led up to Monday’s fact-finding hearing between the Silver Valley Unified School District and its teachers’ union, aimed to resolve the two groups’ debate over teacher compensation.
SVUSD and Silver Valley Education Association have been at the bargaining table since November 2015, met three times with a state-appointed mediator and still remain at odds about the 8 percent raise the union requests.
The teacher salary increase would translate to an approximate $864,000 ongoing district financial commitment, according to SVUSD Deputy Superintendent Jesse Najera, who added that he granting it “would risk fiscal insolvency.”
“The district's position has been — and continues to be — that providing an ongoing salary increase at this time is fiscally irresponsible, especially in light of declining enrollment numbers and budget cuts,” Najera said.
While SVEA can’t refute declining enrollment, according to President Debbie Farrington, they don’t agree that it’s any reason for teachers’ pay to suffer.
“Enrollment is starting to come back up, but it’s going to take a year for us to see that,” Farrington said.
The district also cited that Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2017 budget proposal includes “significantly less funding than the district had been expecting.”
Farrington said the budget “is not as bad as some say it is.”
SVEA’s rationale for the raise, however, is largely based on their recent, money-saving switch to a different health care provider.
Farrington claims the district is saving $3,000 to $4,000 per member since the new insurance switch in October, and “we figured based on that, we found room for them to give us a raise.”
“We are starting to be on the lower end of teachers in the High Desert,” Farrington said. “All the other teachers are negotiating good settlements and making up for the recession years.”
Apple Valley Unified School District has also been amid negotiations for almost a year, while several other local districts have already settled salary schedules.
Silver Valley's 2015-16 salary schedule has beginning teachers holding a bachelor's degree earning $45,230, and the most senior teachers holding a master’s degree or higher earning $93,514.
Comparatively, AVUSD’s schedule starts teachers at $46,782, capping at $98,945. The closest district to Silver Valley, Barstow Unified School District, starts teachers at $42,040 and caps at $88,604.
“It’s very important that we maintain (a competitive salary) because we want to attract and maintain quality teachers,” Farrington said.
“We’ve had the highest test scores in the entire High Desert,” she added, referring to results on the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress. SVUSD’s 2016 scores were about 16 percent higher than the average of all 11 High Desert districts. “We want to maintain that, but unfortunately, when we live in a rural area, there can be quite a turnaround of teachers.”
Still, Najera said the district has stressed all along that its financial reserves are finite, and that an ongoing raise "does not serve the best interests of the children and community we all serve here at Silver Valley.”
Both the district and union expressed their hope that matters could soon be amicably resolved, but SVEA noted that if they aren’t, they will at least consider a strike.
“We prefer a negotiated solution before a strike,” states a letter from SVEA. “SVEA must vote to authorize a strike. We will hold site meetings at all schools in February and will assess our members and our legal options throughout this process and at the conclusion of fact finding.”
The fact-finding stage of negotiations is a state-sanctioned deliberative process for California public schools, with a three-person panel — an advocate from each side and a neutral chairperson.
“In sum, the panel will then review this matter and issue non-binding recommendations to assist the parties on reaching an agreement before the statutory impasse process is completed,” Najera said.
The hearing in closed session is scheduled for Monday at 9 a.m., and a non-binding recommendation will likely be given within 30 days.
Charity Lindsey may be contacted at 760-951-6245 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter@DP_Charity.