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Ventura educators pack school board meeting over pay dispute, living cost increase

VC Star | Ventura County Star
VC Star | Ventura County Star
 14 days ago
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Outside the doors of Ventura Unified School District's board room, Daniel Flores and Ricardo Pinedo, a pair of teachers from Will Rogers Elementary School, were raising a ruckus.

The duo rhythmically pounded on a tambourine, cowbell and a hand drum while a crowd of teachers – all dressed in red – waited for the Tuesday night board meeting to start.

"This is the drums of change," Flores said.

The school district has made little progress in contract talks with its teachers and classified employee unions, both of which have been jointly negotiating over the past few months.

The stalemate must hit several benchmarks, including more rounds of bargaining and failed mediation, before the unions are able to initiate a strike, a bridge Ventura Unified Education Association President Dan Nelson said he hopes is not crossed.

"If we can't close the gap, we will continue to lose excellent educators," he said. "I have faith the board will do the right thing."

Even so, the spiking cost of living in Ventura has teachers and school staff up in arms over the district's offer: a 1% permanent raise with an extra 4% for this school year only.

California's consumer price index, a measure of inflation, increased more than 5% between December and June.

"It's a slap in the face," Marisa Burrier, a fifth-grade teacher at E.P. Foster School, said while she waited outside the board room. "It feels like we're not valued."

Union officials estimated more than 200 of their combined 1,600 members attended the meeting.

The district will return to negotiations later this month with new financial data, published Monday, that includes an extra $15.81 million over its June projections, or 8.7% more than last year's base funding.

Anna Campbell, the district's fiscal director, told the board Tuesday the extra increase came courtesy of state legislation that didn't take effect until Aug. 31.

Sabrena Rodriguez, school board president, said in a Wednesday interview that some of the new money came with stipulations that "staff is still learning about," but might yet make a difference.

"Given that the financial landscape has shifted with the new funds, I'm hopeful we'll be able to make a different offer soon," she said, later adding, "We have to be thoughtful."

Rodriguez declined to discuss the specifics of further offers, citing bargaining law.

New Superintendent Antonio Castro gave the meeting a rundown of the current offer.

"We want to see our employees compensated as highly as possible," he said.

From the corner of the room, a teacher hollered back: "Then give us a raise!"

The board room, packed tight with red T-shirts, grew noisy. A chant emerged.

"Help us help kids!"

The room hushed at the Rodriguez's request, but outside, dozens of teachers who weren't able to squeeze into the room had already picked up the refrain.

"Help us help kids!" they called to the rhythm of a tambourine, cowbell and hand drum.

Beth Borer, a 25-year veteran teaching at the district's continuation school Pacific High, took the microphone near the beginning of public comment to tell the board how she had to move to Santa Paula because she couldn't afford Ventura rents.

The federal fair market rate for a two-bedroom apartment in the Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura metro area stands at $2,218 a month, a 27% increase over the past five years, and will jump another $200 next year.

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Rodriguez said Wednesday she "absolutely" worried about attracting and retaining teachers amid rising costs.

"We may not be able to give paychecks that make it affordable, but there are other strategies we can use," she said, noting the district hoped to redevelop some of its properties into teacher housing.

Paula Barone, a special education aide at Cabrillo Middle School, said she was working four jobs to support her family.

"If I was a waitress and you put a 1% tip in front of me, I'd spit in your food," she said. "I can't retire."

Carol Peek, president of the Ventura Education Support Professionals Association, said she'd worked hard over her tenure to gain respect for education support professionals, a group that includes custodians, bus drivers, teacher aides and the like.

"That 1% took us a million steps back," she said.

Isaiah Murtaugh covers education for the Ventura County Star in partnership with Report for America. Reach him at isaiah.murtaugh@vcstar.com or 805-437-0236 and follow him on Twitter @isaiahmurtaugh and @vcsschools. You can support this work with a tax-deductible donation to Report for America.

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