Between activists critical of a superintendent search process and a major show of force by unions vying for raises, the Kern High School District board room was packed beyond capacity Monday night with protesters, many waving signs and wearing their school colors.
A coalition of district employees wedged into every available space in the room, with the overflow keeping track of proceedings via television screens in another room.
They were demanding their first pay increase since before the recession.
But the employees had to share space with protesters upset with the district's decision earlier Monday to promote Assistant Superintendent for Personnel Bryon Schaefer to its new superintendent. Carrying their own signs, they wanted the board to know they weren't happy with the lack of a national search to replace outgoing Superintendent Don Carter.
District employees gave up raises and paid more for health insurance in the lean years of the economic downturn. With the economy improving and state funding to school districts rebounding, unions are asking for more favorable contracts.
"We were willing to shoulder the burden of that hardship," said Vickie Shoenhair, a Shafter High School physical education teacher and president of the Kern High School Teachers Association, but she added that today is a new day, and the district's "priorities do not accurately reflect the value of the work teachers do with students every single day."
The teachers' association is just one of several units negotiating new contracts with the district. Some are working without a contract since an older one expired. Others are looking ahead to contracts expiring this year.
Wendy Ward, a school counselor for the Kern High School District and president of the Kern High School District Counselors' Association, noted her members are managing twice the industry's recommended caseload even as they're being asked to take on added responsibilities.
"Expectations have increased at an alarming rate," she said.
Randy Turner, president of the union that represents district bus drivers, said his members haven't had a raise in eight years.
"It's time you show us that you guys really appreciate us," he said. "Every day, we're the first person (students) see to represent Kern High School District and the last person they see at night."
Board members said they were limited in how much they could say in public while active contract negotiations were underway, but assured employees that their voices were heard and their work was appreciated.
"There's nothing more valued in our district than our employees," said trustee Mike Williams. "Our children would be the only thing that comes close to that."
At the same time, board members said they had to consider competing interests, including new hires to reduce class sizes and replenishing a reserve fund that was drawn down during the years state funding was plummeting.
"There's a delicate balance, and we all up here are responsible for keeping that balance, so please be patient with us," said board member Martha Miller.
During public comment at the evening's regular meeting, Cal State Bakersfield student Alfonso Diaz asked Schaefer to commit to reforming the district's disciplinary policies.
"Statistics don't lie when it comes to our suspension and expulsion rates," he said, referring to the high number of minority students disciplined.
But some applauded the appointment of a longtime administrator with a good reputation in the district.
East Bakersfield High School Principal Lee Vasquez called Schaefer an excellent choice.
"He's a wonderful asset to the Kern High School District," he said. "He's always been pro-student, pro-teacher and pro-education."