Let’s face it: Contract negotiations between school districts and the teachers union are a drag. There are theatrics, muscle-flexing, flag-waving and shows of solidarity. And that’s just the first 10 minutes of a San Diego Unified school board meeting.

And because bargaining laws allow school districts and unions to discuss contract details in private, the community is usually the last to understand what’s actually on the table.

The district is required to keep the public up to speed and announce deals – and what they mean – within a day from the time they’re struck. But San Diego Unified can lag in its communication to the public.

Another wrench: The district must draft a budget before it knows exactly what it will receive from Sacramento for the following year. That means its financial decisions are subject to change, based on the final amount it will get from the state.

It’s complicated and often shrouded in secret – so let’s shine some light on the whole process.

How Collective Bargaining Works

A state law passed in 1975 guaranteed unions the right to bargain certain items, like wages and hours. Other things, like teacher tenure, are off the table.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

The district and teachers union each start out with an initial proposal, which they make available for public comment. In San Diego Unified’s case, they made an opening offer at the end of April. It can be amended based on feedback.

If the proposal is approved, it moves forward and negotiations begin. Compromises can be made, and ideally, the two parties reach a tentative agreement. After this, the new contract is put before the public once again. If both parties are square, the final contract is signed.

Of course, it’s always possible that one party feels jilted and digs in its heels. A state-level mediator could step in at that point. The mediator could then make a nonbinding recommendation on how to move forward.

Worst-case scenario: The union can call a strike and stop working altogether.

If both parties agree, though, the public can be kept in the loop at any point in these negotiations.

But San Diego Unified, like most California school districts, keeps the community on a sort of need-to-know basis until it’s ready to post its agreement for comments.

In negotiations, it’s common for both sides to say the choices come down to what’s best for kids.

The reality is all but a few of these issues come down to money, and with the district facing an estimated $115 million shortfall for next year, somebody will have to compromise.

Here’s some of what’s on the table.

Teacher Evaluations

In its initial proposal, the district asked for changes to the way in which teachers are evaluated.

The issue is at the root of a longstanding effort to hold teachers accountable for their perceived effectiveness.

Unlike other districts like Los Angeles Unified, San Diego Unified isn’t talking about using student test scores as a factor in teacher evaluations. Instead, Superintendent Cindy Marten said she’d like to find a way to include feedback from students and parents.

Interpretations vary on what this would look like in practice. They range from having the feedback included in formal evaluations, to having feedback sent to the teacher privately, in a way that’s kept anonymous from the principal.

The union, on the other hand, believes potential changes could hurt teachers if an upset student or parent didn’t like the way they were graded.

Wages and Health Care

Both of these are related to take-home pay. A few years ago, teachers agreed to pass on pay raises they were promised in order to avoid mass layoffs.

The district made good on what it owed teachers, but the union says they’re still paid less than other teachers across the county.

When we vetted this claim in the past, we found San Diego Unified teachers do indeed make less than teachers in other districts, but they also receive better health care benefits.

Leading up to negotiations, the district said it could save millions if the union agreed to change health care providers and move from its current system – a kind of health trust run jointly by labor and management from several participating districts – to a provider like Kaiser.

Union representatives say the change would disrupt the continuity of teachers’ health care, potentially making them scramble to find different doctors.

Clarification of Job Descriptions

This one’s fairly self-explanatory. Trustee Scott Barnett said the world has changed a lot since 1984, but job descriptions for teachers in the district haven’t.

Barnett said that some teachers may not want – or know how to – use technology in their classrooms. Changes to the contract could make that part of their assigned duties.

Class Sizes

Teachers like small classes. Smaller classes mean students get more personal attention. Large classes also mean more work: There’s more prep time, more time spent grading and it’s more challenging to manage students’ behavior.

Currently, classes are capped at 36 students – fewer for younger students and certain schools. Marten told U-T San Diego she understands the resistance to larger classes, but wants the option of lifting the cap in certain situations.

As a former principal of Central Elementary, she rallied against larger classes with the rest of her teachers. But now she’d like to have some flexibility to experiment.

The union, however, is afraid “flexibility” will eventually turn into larger classes across the board.

Marten told the U-T that high school students don’t know what it’s like to learn in a college-style, lecture hall environment. Running certain classes that way could get them some practice.

“What I will say is the most highly effective teachers are going to be effective whether they have 40 kids in the class or whether they have five kids in the class,” she said.


The district and union are still negotiating, and haven’t yet struck a tentative deal.

San Diego Unified was hoping that Gov. Jerry Brown might kick additional money to school districts after his May budget revision. But this week, the district learned that they wouldn’t see extra cash.

At the end of June, the same time its current contract with the union will expire, the district will have to finalize its budget.

If the district and union don’t strike a deal by then, the district could declare an impasse, and a mediating body could step in. If all else fails, there are the nuclear options: The district could impose its last and best offer, and the union could call a strike.

This means San Diego Unified will currently have a little more than a month to make its choices – with less money than it hoped to have. In other words, it’s about to get real.

    This article relates to: Education, News, School Finances, School Leadership, School Performance, Share, Teacher Tenure

    Written by Mario Koran

    Mario is an investigative reporter focused on immigration, border and related criminal justice issues. Reach him directly at 619.325.0531, or by email: mario@vosd.org.

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    I see the District had a lot of takers in the early retirement offer.

    No surprise really. They would be fools not to take it.

    John H Borja
    John H Borja subscriber

    It's been very clear for many years that some people consider teachers to be "entitled".  Well, in the last many years we have local politicians and Congressional types that feel anything military is entitled. The issue is money....as always. The other issue is unions. People feel that a bunch a people should not have overwhelming power to push anyone or any particular organization. The problem is, again, money. If the local coffee shop owner is confronted by the employees, it looks like gang warfare. But, if Apple is confronted by its employees is that fair?Apple has the money and the employees do not. The problem is perception and transparency. Perception may be based on fact...or not. But, transparency is based on a tactic. That, is the center of the problem. San Ysidro School District is suffering from both a perception problem and a transparency problem. And the current Board members Barajas and Wells do not want to have anyone know what their cards are in the poker game. Mr. Martinez, another Board member, however, is betting that Barajas and Wells are creating undue stress. The teachers are wondering what is really going on. What is partially going on is that Mr. Wells, while a David Alvarez advocate, is in fact, a radical right wing,anti-union, Chamber of Commerce stalwart. While his children go to San Ysidro Schools, he actually advocates against their teachers. Mr. Barajas is simply a stand-in for corrupt former Superintendent Paul. Mr. Martinez stands firms for the honesty and integrity of the people who work for the children in San Ysidro...the teachers. All of this is about the "intellectual bank" of the teachers vs 3 or 4 intellectually bankrupt individuals at the San Ysidro School District. The Teachers know the kids can achieve. It's time the San Ysidro School District paid for that power.

    Stuart Morse
    Stuart Morse subscriber

    @Dennis James Isn't your criticism more suited for the school board and/or the people who decide the length of the school year (the state)?&

    DDunn subscriber

    Nicely said - and conversely, SDUSD should get used to offering college sized salaries and benefits. Students may also get used to being "dropped" with an absence or two - and, parents...no more phone calls home to discuss student progress or lack thereof. : )



    Saying students should get used to college-sized lectures should be combined with teachers getting used to T.A.s to grade @voiceofsandiego

    Dennis James
    Dennis James subscriber

    Never forget that teachers don't work a full year. For most workers with 2 weeks of vacation a year, there are 250 work days. Teachers work under 200, not sure if it is only 185. Whatever their salary is - add another 25-30% to equate it with full time work. So $69k really represents a lot more.

    Elmer Walker
    Elmer Walker subscriber

    The average pay for teachers in California for 2012-2013 is $69,300, fourth highest in the nation.(California Teachers Association figure). The figure for 2013-2014 should be much higher. This is for 180 days or $385 per day. Each taxpayer must decide on their own if this is too much, not enough or just about where it should be.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    @Elmer Walker "Each taxpayer must decide on their own if this is too much...."  OK, I decided.  Now what?  Give me a break.  The taxpayers and parents have absolutely no say on the agreement.  As the story indicates, it's done in secret and the taxpayers are told after the fact.

    Stuart Morse
    Stuart Morse subscriber

    @Jim Jones You still seem very confused.  Make up your mind!  Is it all teachers are losers?  Or is just the teachers who teach south of the 8 that are losers?  

      The fact that you don't acknowledge that socioeconomic factors and parental involvement are, by every rational person's account, extremely important factors speaks volumes about your state of ignorance/confusion.

       By the way, do you think you can come up with some new material?  For someone of your prodigious intelligence, shouldn't you be able to make more convincing arguments than "teachers are lazy and suck".

    Matt Watkins
    Matt Watkins subscribermember

    Why oh why is a longer school year not on the agenda: fewer (or no) minimum days, full days during P/T conference weeks, fewer days off around holidays (e.g. Thursday and Friday instead of the whole week for Thanksgiving.) 

    Tim ONeill
    Tim ONeill subscriber

    As the article stated, the Governor's proposed budget doesn't direct more $ to schools. A longer school year means more $ spent to operate the schools and pay teachers and staffs; a greater fiscal priority for the State than it is currently.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    @Matt Watkins Queery:  Many of our schools closed for one or more days during the fires.  Are lost days like this made up in any fashion?  I can guess the answer, but does anyone know for sure?   

    Matt Watkins
    Matt Watkins subscribermember

    @Tim ONeill  Then how are wages on the table at all? The pay disparity question should be moot. And how is lower class size an option? Given the choice between lower class sizes and a longer school year, as a parent with kids in SDUSD schools, I choose a longer school year. But parents are never given that choice. Lower class sizes are a perfect hobby-horse for the teacher's union because they do have a measurable impact on student performance, but also make teachers' jobs easier and create more teaching jobs in the district. The question is whether the gain to students from lower class sizes is offset by having a shorter school year. Additionally, you have to consider the economic effect of having 132,000 kids whose parents have to figure out childcare options for all those half-days and extra days off.

    Tim ONeill
    Tim ONeill subscriber

    In California currently, school districts are provided funding from the state on a formula based on daily student attendance up to a MAXIMUM of 180 days of instruction, regardless of when these days are calendared during the year. (This explains why many districts calendar the entire Thanksgiving week off, so as to maximize student attendance.)

    If a school district were to offer more than 180 days of instruction, they would receive NO additional $ from the state by which to do so. If you are suggesting that the district offset this cost by INCREASING class sizes, then you should weigh the negative consequences of that increased class size over the entire school year as a trade off for what would be a relatively minor increase in the school year.

    Understand that the amount we taxpayers pay per pupil in California is FAR below the median funding level in the U.S. Unless we are willing to reprioritize spending in our state away from our prisons and towards our schools, our options are few and none. (If you're not familiar with the increase in California's spending on prisons vs. schools ver the past 10 years or so, do a little Internet research. It's very eye opening (and depressing).

    Matt Watkins
    Matt Watkins subscribermember

    @Tim ONeill  Problem with that funding formula is that any day with 4 hours of instruction counts as an instructional day. Normal school days are 7 hours long. Sad to see school districts seeking the lowest common denominator wrt state funding.