Teachers’ Union Begins New Year of Negotiations

By Flynn Buxton-Walsh

Photo by abby_gold

With Proposition 30 passed last November, California Governor Jerry Brown has declared the state’s budget deficit to be over, with clear increases in funding to K–12 education. It certainly appears to be over for Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD), which is currently trying to decide how to appropriate part of a $6.3 million reserve.

However, 867 BUSD teachers, who amid constantly increasing health care costs haven’t had a raise in four years, haven’t yet felt the effects of the budget’s close.

On January 16, the Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT) began negotiating its new contract for the current and coming school years, primarily focused on increasing salary and health care. According to the union, there has been a 7.8 percent increase in the cost of living for Berkeley teachers in the past four years, in addition to approximate ten percent increases in health care every year.

“Berkeley teachers do amazing things,” said John Becker, English teacher in the Arts and Humanities Academy and BFT representative. “However, we’re getting close to the breaking point. When this year’s health care cost increases were announced, I heard more than one teacher wondering aloud whether the day had finally come where they could no longer afford to teach.”

This sentiment seemed common among many of the teachers.

“My salary went down by three percent because of the health care increase this year, and last year even more,” said one teacher during the gathering. “And next year it will be about the same, and the year after that about the same.”
BUSD declined to comment on the issue, citing that the negotiations weren’t open to the public.

Last year every teacher in the district received an additional one percent bonus, and there are talks about another one being paid out in April. However, BFT is looking for a permanent increase to be added to their contracts. Governor Brown has recently proposed a weighted funding formula, where districts with higher proportions of low–income and English language learner students would receive a larger proportion of additional funds, but it’s unclear how Berkeley fits in and what, if any, changes in funding they receive.

Although this increase in costs harms every teacher, there is not a consensus on how to remedy it. Older teachers who are more likely to have families and consequently higher health care costs favor increases in health care compensation while younger teachers are more likely to prefer salary increases, explained Dan Plonsey, a math teacher in Academic Choice.
But what all teachers can agree on is that any increase in compensation from the district is only a short–term solution to a long–term problem.

“These issues around health care are issues that are never going to be solved with one contract in one place and another contract in another place,” explained Becker. “It’s part of why it’s really important that as a union we fight for statewide or national health care solutions around single payer healthcare.”