Bitterness swells as teacher salary negotiations continue

A neutral party from the state is expected to release a report this week that could determine if Williams Unified School District has the money to meet the salary demands of its teachers.

The teachers union and the district have been negotiating since last year for a new contract, but neither side has budged. Williams teachers have asked for a 6 percent pay raise – the district has countered with no increase in salary.

In addition to the conflict over wages, teachers said they are frustrated over the elimination of paraeducators at the primary school, the use of a non-credentialed teacher for one third grade class, and insufficient intervention to help struggling readers.

Teachers said they are prepared to strike if no settlement can be reached, and they are asking the school board to put money where they say it belongs.

“Our students are entitled to funds to directly support their learning,” Kindergarten teacher Keri Lovelady told the school board on Thursday. “A lot of money is being spent on external consultants and additional administration. This money should be used to fund resources and personnel that directly impact our students’ learning.”

Williams Unified Superintendent Edgar Lampkin, who was accused Thursday of intimidating teachers and bashing them over poor test scores, has maintained the district does not have the money to pay teachers what they want.

“We value our teachers,” Lampkin said. “I’m extremely proud of the work they are doing, and how they are striving to work toward student achievement.”

The school district maintains that Williams teachers are not underpaid. Teachers received a one-time 4.5 percent salary increase in the 2014-2015 school year; a 2.5 percent ongoing salary increase in 2015-2016; and a 2 percent ongoing salary increase in 2016-2017.

According to the district’s website, the lowest paid teacher at Williams Unified has a base salary of just over $47,000. Each year teachers stay in the district, they get an automatic 2 percent annual pay increase until they reach the highest step. The highest paid teacher in the district has a base salary of just over $94,000, and more than half of the teachers in the district are making more than $70,000 per year, officials said.

“I am proud to say we do have our teachers as the highest paid in the county, and I want to make sure we continue keeping that and making that happen, but obviously our budget drives what we do,” Lampkin said.

The district claims the state has required all school districts to dramatically increase the annual contributions to their employees’ retirement accounts, which amounted to an additional $160,000 in the 2016-2017 school year, and that figure is expected to grow.

The district also claims that multi-year projections show deficit spending over the next three years, which will require the district to dip into reserves.

Teachers, however, denied being the highest paid in the county because they said they pay upward to $16,000 a year out of their salaries for health benefits, which makes their wages less than other districts.

Teachers said they believe their request for a salary increase is fair, and is something the district can afford, given current and future budget conditions. They also believe the salary increase makes the district more competitive, and allows for the recruitment and retention of quality educators.

Although still at odds, the district and the teachers union continued to negotiate this week, hoping to reach a settlement.

Short of a last-minute agreement, both sides hope the opinion of a neutral party – who will take all negotiated points into consideration – will help end the impasse without teachers having to walk off their jobs. However, the report is not binding, officials said.

“Having been through the process, I can say that it has been fair,” Lampkin said. “We all had the chance to tell our story, and we had the opportunity to talk about the needs and wants of our students and their families. The district is committed to honoring the process and using the report from the independent fact-finding panel as a guide to moving forward.”