Seeing Red

Teachers’ no-confidence vote is the latest sign of fraying relationship with district

First-year+teacher+Stefanie+Menera+holds+a+banner+in+protest+as+teachers+seek+attention+to+the+stalled+negotiation+process+with+the+district+Oct.+7.+Teachers+say+they+received+%245%2C000+less+this+year%2C+and+are+asking+for+a+4%25+raise.

Izel Garcia/Bear Witness

First-year teacher Stefanie Menera holds a banner in protest as teachers seek attention to the stalled negotiation process with the district Oct. 7. Teachers say they received $5,000 less this year, and are asking for a 4% raise.

Jazzy Nguyen, Co-Editor-In-Chief

For Leigh High School teacher Cynthia Williams, even a racial slur was more acceptable than the district’s souring relationship with teachers in the ongoing pay dispute.

“Today I was called a n- by one of my students,” Williams said at the Nov. 4 board meeting. “I am an African American teacher at Leigh. That was less disrespectful than what is going on with negotiations.”

At the meeting, speaker after speaker — in all, 20 teachers and students — lined up to speak at the podium, each of them criticizing the board members directly, citing a decline in morale and trust in their leadership.

More damning was the vote of no-confidence the teachers union presented to the board, garnering more than 380 teacher signatures, pinning the blame on Superintendent Dr. Robert Bravo.

Yet, after the outpouring of grievances, protests and a student petition that has so far garnered 28,000 signatures, the school board unanimously voted to extend Bravo’s contract one year, through 2024.

“It was a slap in the face” to teachers and student voices, said Kim McCarthy, Prospect High School history teacher and president of the teachers union, of the unanimous vote, presented without discussion.

Board member Stacey Brown did not attend and did not vote. The two student board representatives, junior Ainsley Bateman of Branham and Alison Lubiens from Prospect, cast a symbolic vote against the extension.

Teachers thought, that with the rockiest starts to the school year in recent memory, that the board might have reconsidered a vote amid the tensions.

“I would like to know why that decision was made when we’ve heard them say that they’re listening to us,” said English teacher Rebecca Gilmore of Prospect after the meeting. “Because tonight, I don’t feel like I was listened to.”

The vote of no-confidence, with more than 70% of the district’s teachers, and 100% of Branham teachers, signing on, was a sign that teachers are asking for a change in leadership.

Among the reasons for presenting the vote of no confidence were issues that teachers had with Bravo’s handling of the return to school, not creating a “positive work environment” that invites and retains high quality teachers.

The statement from the district’s teachers comes after months of protesting in front of school on Tuesdays and Thursdays before class, picketing at the district office before the bi-monthly meetings.

Teachers have also worn red and have donned pins encouraging others to “Ask me about my pay cut,” a term that the district disputes.

For the 2020 school year, teachers were given a one-time $5,000 bonus that was not renewed. The district had pinned its hopes of giving the teachers a raise from the passage of a parcel tax. When Measures K and L did not pass in 2020, teachers and the district returned to the negotiating table to discuss the rest of the teachers’ employment contract, which expires at the end of this school year.

Both parties met again Nov. 15 with a state-appointed mediator, but no agreement was made at that discussion.

The district says that the one-time payment was just that, but teachers view it differently. Tiffany Ylarregui, who teaches math at Branham, said that it’s in the way it’s defined.

“While I understand they have not subtracted money from our base salary, it comes down to a practical definition of pay,” Ylarregui said. “There’s two pay cuts. One is that we are taking home less money because the stipend ended, and two our dollars are worth less because of it. The cost of living has risen and our pay has not.”

The cost of living in San Jose is 49% higher than the national average, according to PayScale, which analyzes employment data. From year to year, the cost of paying for necessities such as food and housing have jumped between 6% and 9%.

The current request from the Campbell High School Teachers Association is for a 5.5% pay increase in addition to a $5,000 increase in teacher salary schedules. They cite the district’s $48 million in reserves, which has grown in recent years, as an example of their frugality.

Ylarregui is not in the minority when it comes to financial difficulty due to the decrease in pay. Branham teachers approached the speaker podium during the board’s last four meetings to share personal stories and requests for the return of the bonus, citing the difficulties they’ve had to face as a result of the $5,000 cut.

“It means I’m going into debt,” said Jen Ozdinski, Branham social science psychology teacher. “I’ve given up some of my personal care things just to find the money, and even moved out of my storage unit to save that money. It forced me to try and figure out where I’m spending that makes life easier that I can’t do anymore.”

In the face of inflation, rising rent and housing prices with no adjustment in salary, trying to live in the area near their place of work is becoming increasingly difficult. According to a CHSTA survey, 69.3% of teachers are considering leaving the district because of pay.

“When I first started with the district, there was five or six years where we had no pay increases because the district didn’t have the money and we understood, and we tightened our belts, and we just made it through,” said Branham Choir and Guitar teacher Barbara West, Vice President of the CSEA, at the Nov 4 meeting. “But then when things got better, then of course, compensation needs to go with that. We want [teachers] to get the money they deserve. If things go bad again, we’ll be here for you. We’ll tighten our belts again. We understand math. We get it.”

The district’s $48 million in reserves, above the $7.2 million that is required as their baseline, has been a large point of contention for teachers as many question why money is sitting in a bank account, and not used toward giving teachers the raise that they’ve been asking for.

CUHSD Board President Kalen Gallagher says that, of the reserves, $17 million has been earmarked for other projects and cannot be used to fund an increase in teacher salaries. The rest isn’t earmarked. Though the state only requires that 3% of revenue is kept, the district’s policy is to keep it at 6%.

The board had recently considered bumping up the reserves to 17%, but had not voted on that proposal.

Despite the intense opposition to the district’s leadership, board president Kalen Gallagher is defending the decision to extend Bravo’s tenure.

“We obviously have some big issues that we need to solve as a community and as a district, but I think the people in this room can figure it out,” said Gallagher. “I think they’re the right people. It’s just going to take some time, and it’s going to take some real frank conversations at the negotiation table.”

Gallagher attributes the quick, united vote to Bravo’s competence and the effort he puts into understanding opinions that arise.

“Dr. Bravo is one of the better superintendents in the state,” Gallagher said, just after voting to renew Superintendent Bravo’s contract. “He has done a lot for students, he works really hard, he takes in lots of opinions, he understands them. You don’t always have to agree on things, but I think he’s the right person to lead us into the future.”

Bravo told the Bear Witness that he’s taking a one-day-at-a-time approach to repairing the fraught relationship that teachers have with him.

“I have to do my job,” he said. “I appreciate that they’re going to do their job. There’s no question that we want the teachers to have raises, and they will have their raises. The question is just exactly how much it’s going to be. I’m glad that we have mediators to help us with that.”

He said he was “disappointed and saddened” when the teachers union presented the vote of no confidence against him.

“I think all of us want to think that we do a good job with the people that we’re working with, and nobody wants to think that they aren’t,” he said.

He describes the relationship between the board and teachers as “strained,” and characterizes the public comments from teachers as being both “fair” and “unfair.”

“It’s not more about me as much as it is about the board and the idea [from the teachers] that ‘if we don’t get x particular amount, it means you don’t care.’” he said. “We can disagree on how much the district can afford while still living in its budget. But to call disagreement ‘not caring’ – that’s the [unfair] one– especially to the board members. What is most unfair about the whole thing, instead of just saying, ‘Look, we’re disagreeing about this’ and ‘let’s talk this out some more’ just to go to that place of assigning it as ‘you don’t care.’”

When asked to elaborate on which of the teacher’s comments he thought were fair, he responded, “I do need time to think about that one.”