The Sweetwater Union High School District and its teachers union reached a tentative agreement April 10 on a new contract that gives teachers their first pay raise in eight years, smaller class sizes and lower health care costs.
“In the midst of some difficult circumstances I believe both sides were able to come together in a meaningful way to focus on getting this contract, which was meaningful for our teachers but also protected the financial stability of the district,” said Sweetwater board President Jim Cartmill at a Friday press conference.
Under the new three-year deal, teachers receive a pay increase of five percent over the next two years, with the first being a two percent pay raise retroactive to Jan. 1. Then on July 1 teachers get a three percent salary increase.
For the 2015-2016 school years, the Sweetwater Education Association — which is an 1,800 member union — has an opportunity to reopen contract negotiations for the possibility of getting an additional pay hike.
The contract also ensures that the student-to-teacher ratio drops from 31:1 this year to 30:1 in 2014-2015, followed by a 28:1 ratio in 2015-2016.
“When the financial crisis came we agreed to increase class sizes on a temporary basis, and we saw that as a promise to the community that it was temporary and that we would go back to lower class sizes so that we can give meaningful instruction to as many students as possible,” said SEA President Roberto Rodriguez.
“This contract allows us to fulfill that promise of lowering those class sizes again and fulfilling that promise to the community.”
The sticking point throughout negotiations, however, was the cost of health insurance.
With the agreement, the district’s healthcare contribution rises from $9,000 to $12,068 per employee annually retroactive to Jan. 1. That is 68 percent of the family rate for medical, dental, vision and life insurance. In January 2015 the contribution by the district caps out at $13,130.
Sweetwater Superintendent Dr. Ed Brand said the school board needs to approve the contract at its April 21 board meeting.
Rodriguez said teachers must also ratify the contract so that the agreement can become official.
Teachers are expected to ratify the contract in the next three to four weeks, Rodriguez said.
The union president said he doesn’t foresee a reason why the contract won’t be ratified.
The agreement with SEA also opens the door for the district’s California School Employees Association to receive the same salary raise and healthcare cost as the teachers because CSEA has a “me too clause” in their contract.
A me too clause calls for classified employees to get the same percentage raise and benefits as another bargaining unit if they are better than the ones CSEA has.
“Basically the me too clause refers to anything that has to do with the total compensation package, which is basically wages and benefits,” said Francisco Tamayo, president of the classified union of the office technical.
“So what we have there is that if any other (bargaining) group gets a better deal above what we bargained, we get it too automatically without the need to bargain.”
Because SEA has a reopener in its third year of the contract, Tamayo said CSEA would revert back to its agreed 2.2 percent raise, unless SEA can broker a better deal in its reopener, Tamayo said.
The terms will apply to CSEA once the teachers union ratifies its contract, Tamayo said.
SEA’s new contract comes after a contentious six-month bargaining process where union members on numerous occasions picketed in front of the district office before school board meetings, and held a rally poking fun at the superintendent and board members.
Rodriguez said those actions stemmed from teachers’ frustrations with the way the district had previously handled bargaining.
“That was all in the heat of the moment, especially when teachers have been so frustrated for such a long time,” he said. “But I think what teachers will now feel is some relief and just the ability to go back in teach.”
The district had remained silent on contract talks until they held a March 27 press conference where the district publicly released details of what was then their latest proposal and urged an agreement to be settled before the end of spring break.
Throughout the negotiations union leaders said they were ready to strike at any given date, but that is now averted with the tentative agreement.
“I think teachers are happy to return to the task of teaching students, and I think for that we’re grateful,” he said.