The Tamalpais Federation of Teachers (TFT) union ended a week-long impasse regarding contract negotiations on Thursday and withdrew their filing for state mediation.
After seven months of fruitless negotiation, the TFT officially declared an impasse on Feb. 9, which would have triggered a state review and subsequent mediation between the union and the Tamalpais Unified High School District (TUHSD).
The impasse ended as a result of the district’s decision to remove a health care cap from the negotiating table this Wednesday. The cap would have required teachers to pay more health care costs out of pocket, according to TFT President Cory DeMars.
The district’s current health care package is a reason many teachers choose to teach in the district, according to DeMars. He believes that concerns over retaining teachers contributed to the district’s decision to remove the health care cap.
“[The district] started to hear very loud and clear the concerns raised by teachers regarding the possibility of losing or changing their health care benefits and the ill effects that would have on a number of teachers,” DeMars said.
As school enrollments are projected to grow over the next several years, more teachers will need to be hired, making the current health care package an even more attractive draw for new teachers, according to DeMars.
“A strong case was made that the health care package that we currently have is a huge draw for recruiting and retaining really good, talented teachers,” DeMars said.
Members of the union negotiating team will reconvene March 1 and hope to come to a final contract agreement with the district in potentially one or two meetings, according to Steve Hettleman, an English teacher and a member of the TFT union negotiating team.
“The biggest barrier to negotiation that led to impasse was the district’s unwillingness to negotiate in what we thought was a fair way,” Hettleman said. “Now we are going back to the bargaining table first and hopefully we can make progress and hammer out whatever the deal is.”
District Superintendent David Yoshihara said he expects the recent developments to contribute to progress at the negotiating table.
“What we can share is that we are ready to come back with the teacher’s union with an offer that is different than our last offer. We hope this will allow us to continue the dialogue with them,” Yoshihara said.
Yoshihara held meetings with teachers this week in which they expressed their concerns with the health care cap.
“[The teachers told] very real stories of difficulties that are part of their jobs [during the meetings],” Hettleman said. “What we didn’t hear was the superintendent have any emotions or empathetic response to those stories, which was disappointing.”
Yoshihara said that the change regarding the health care cap was initiated by the Board of Trustees.
“[The Board meeting] was a one-item meeting around collective bargaining and based upon [the Board’s] direction, [the Board was] willing for the district to present another offer [to the union]. We were hopeful that the union could wait [to declare an impasse], but they wanted to move forward,” Yoshihara said.
One of the district’s main concerns in negotiating the contract is the financial impact any given proposal will have, according to DeMars.
The TUHSD originally offered a contract in August 2016 with a six percent salary raise for the 2016-17 school year and a four percent raise for the 2017-18 school year with no other conditions, according to a TFT press release. However, three days later the district rescinded the offer, according to the press release, and replaced it with a package that offered a flat raise of $2,000, added three more days to the work calendar and required teachers to pay more of their health care costs out of pocket.
The district’s initial offer would have provided teachers with a salary equivalent to Marin’s 2009 cost of living when adjusted for inflation, according to a TFT press release, while the cost of living in Marin has increased by 20 percent since June of 2009.
Hettleman believes that the pay raise equivalent to the 2009 cost of living is more than reasonable.
“We work here, we live here, we don’t want the district to become insolvent. We recognized that with increased enrollment, there might be a hit to the budget over the course of some time,” Hettleman said. “At the same time, we think what we are asking for is pretty fair. Something that is fair and equitable, that is hammered down in good faith, that is all we are looking for.”
However, the legitimacy of the original package as an official offer is a point of dispute. Lars Christensen, TUHSD Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources and member of the district’s negotiating team, said that the package was never proposed.
“[The package] wasn’t an offer. The teachers’ association made an offer, and then we had conversations about that offer, and that’s where it ended,” Christensen said. “There is disagreement between the district and the TFT as to what constituted an offer and a counter offer.”
Hettleman expressed confusion regarding the district’s priorities, especially regarding the district’s focus on health care.
“[Teachers] are curious why the district is spending so much time and energy on something [like an increase in healthcare] that doesn’t seem to be a huge problem and is really not a large part of its annual budget,” Hettleman said.
DeMars said that while the specifics of the second package were not ideal or acceptable, the real issue was the district’s negotiating style, which he described as “regressive bargaining.”
“Everyone wants to think that the entire issue is all about the health care cap that they proposed at the table, but what it’s really about is how they’re negotiating,” DeMars said. “If they were negotiating in such a way that allowed conversations to continue and take place, where we could actually creatively problem solve together, then I think we could probably work through the health care issue and whatever issues arrive at the table.”
Negotiations were also started months later than usual to allow for the completion of a budget review. The review was designed to gauge the financial health of the district and to understand what could be offered in negotiations.
Hettleman acknowledged the district’s need to stay on budget, but he also believes that there is room to reach a deal.
“We recognize that increased enrollment plays some role in the district’s budget, but the truth is that the district might not have ever been as healthy as it is now in terms of its fiscal situation,” Hettleman said.
Social studies teacher and TFT Vice President Ann Jaime said the situation was unique to her 25 years of teaching at Redwood.
“I think most teachers sitting on the negotiating team would say we don’t really know how we got [to the impasse],” Jaime said. “Of course teachers recognize that resources are scarce and that the schools are growing, but we also we need to be fairly compensated for the work we do.”
Additional contributions from Heidi Roenisch and Alicia Vargelis.