Bakersfield City School District teachers going on strike for higher pay raises is a real possibility for the first time in decades.
The Bakersfield Elementary Teachers Association said this is the first time the union is at an impasse with the district over teacher raises since before the economic recession that started in 2008.
“I’m not going to say it’s an impossibility,” said BETA President Steve Comstock. "I certainly hope it won’t come to that, but our members are very adamant they are not satisfied with the district’s (2 percent) offer. This is the closest we’ve seen to a strike in many years.”
Even during the recession, Comstock said, teachers agreed to forgo a raise for several years due to the financial problems BCSD and other districts faced at the time.
“BCSD and BETA have always been able to solve our bargaining issues for decades,” he said.
Comstock said the association and the district are waiting for a date when they will meet with a state-appointed mediator to help reach an agreement. He said they expect to get a date within the next week or two from the Public Employment Relations Board, and will hopefully set up a meeting in March.
“Everything is at a standstill until we get that date,” he said.
Comstock said mediated negotiations can be quick or can last months. If the district and teachers union still can’t come to an agreement at that point, he said, BETA would consider a strike.
Technically, teachers are prohibited in their contracts from going on strike. However, Comstock said that’s only if a contract is in effect.
Since BCSD teachers’ last contract expired June 30, he said they are essentially working on an expired contract, so the strike clause doesn’t apply.
“This has no effect on us,” he said. “This is something that is the right of the teachers should we think we have to go that far.”
‘APPLES AND ORANGES’
BCSD officials have said that a 2 percent raise for the 2018-19 school year is the best they can afford at this time, as they are facing rising special education, transportation and employee retirement costs, and uncertainty in how Gov. Gavin Newsom’s May budget revision will shake out for the district.
BETA is pursuing a 4.5 percent raise, as the union says teachers deserve a raise at around the same rate as the 5 percent raise the district’s assistant superintendents received in 2017.
“I get they’re looking at percentages, but they need to realize that raise was only for three people, including myself,” said Steve McClain, BCSD's assistant superintendent of business services. “With 1,500 teachers, a 2 percent raise alone would cost millions of dollars compared to just $25,000 for three people. We can’t sustain a 4.5 percent raise.”
McClain also said assistant superintendents don’t get automatic yearly salary increases, called steps, as part of the district’s salary schedule like teachers do. The more years a teacher works at the district, the more pay they get.
“The comparisons are not apples and apples — they’re apples and oranges,” McClain said about comparing management pay to teacher pay.
BCSD Public Information Officer Irma Cervantes said what it basically comes down to is that a 5 percent raise was approved during a different budget year when the district was in a better financial position.
Two years later, the district says it is dealing with higher service costs and are expecting lower revenue for schools in the state budget.
“Two percent is the best we can do right now,” Cervantes said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t offer a higher raise in the future if the budget situation improves. We hope our budget will be better.”
While the offer for this school year is lower than the 3 percent BCSD teachers got last school year and the 4 percent raise they got in 2016-17, McClain said the district’s three-year raise total would be higher than most other elementary school districts in Kern County, assuming a 2 percent increase for this year.
According to district data, no area elementary district would exceed BCSD’s 9 percent three-year total for teachers. The Panama-Buena Vista Union School District and Standard School District were the only other elementary districts that also had 9 percent totals over the past three years.
“Claims that we’re not being competitive is not in line with factual information,” McClain said. “We’re definitely competitive.”
In addition, the district is offering to increase the pay for extra time teachers spend doing work out of the classroom from $20 an hour to $40 an hour.
McClain rebuffed BETA’s assertion that BCSD ranks at the bottom for teacher pay compared to 11 other districts across the state. While that may be accurate for max pay at $93,341, McClain said it ranks fifth in terms of starting pay of $48,021.
Despite high tensions between the district and its teachers right now, McClain said he expects a strike can be avoided and the issue will be resolved through mediation.
“We’re still a long ways off from that point,” he said of a possible strike.