District, union make a deal

Confusion, contradiction set the tone at school board meeting

PASO ROBLES – The last Paso Robles Joint Unified School Board meeting was charged with dissent. With every complaint came a complement in defense of the School Board or Superintendent Chris Williams. The mood was discontented and angry voices left an oily wake.

The room was packed with teachers (who had heard word about a lesser September paycheck from a recent meeting of teacher and union representatives) bearing hand-written signage protesting teacher’s salary cuts while a startled school board president later said the board had no intention of cutting their pay at all.

Williams did not like how the board meeting went, according to James (Jim) Lynett, Executive Representative of Paso Robles Public Educators (PRPE). Lynett said Williams had incentive to settle with the union demands, so he moved the negotiation session with PRPE up to Sept. 20 from Oct. 4.

Lynett called the tentative agreement between PRPE and PRJUSD a success. The union will be reviewing the two-year agreement for a vote on Oct. 2, but Lynett is pleased with the four main changes to the PRJUSD employee contract. The agreement will take care of any impending “salary cuts” from health care plan premium increases, in the form of a set number of work days per year combined with two years of pay raises.

The tentative agreement states PRPE will accept the proposed three professional development days in the 2017-2018 and 2018-19 school year at 188 total workdays per year. A two percent salary increase for the 2017-18 school year will be placed on the salary schedule (effective July 1, 2017) and a 1.5 percent salary increase for the 2018-19 school year will be placed on the salary schedule, effective July 1, 2018.

Additional stipend increases to recognize longevity for certain employees will include a .75 percent increase, effective July 1, 2017.

The tentative agreement also included a reduction of spring break from two weeks to one week starting in the 2018-2019 school year.

The offer is inclusive and contingent on maintaining current practice of class size ratios through the 2019-2020 school year.

“The tenor of the session yesterday was very cooperative on both sides,” Lynett said about the compromise. “We truly had a dialogue about priorities. Superintendent Williams took an effective leadership role with his team… We appreciate the cooperation that led to a fair settlement for the hard-working teachers and their families because they dedicate their careers to providing the best education possible for all the students in the PRJUSD, and they merit recognition.”

Now that the teacher’s salary issue has calmed, other school board changes still need resolution.

Also during the last meeting, the school board made a surprise announcement that Trustee Dave Lambert was resigning, effective immediately. The board is seeking legal counsel on their options: whether to appoint a replacement or hold an election to choose a new trustee.

During the meeting, half of the board members spoke of Lambert’s wonderful contributions and the Board President mentioned his departure was partly due to health reasons. Meanwhile Lambert told the Paso Robles Daily News that he disagreed with the decisions the board was making, saying, “I can no longer support the direction of the district,” and making no mention of his health.

On top of the teacher’s protest signs and Lambert’s resignation announcement, Paso Robles math teacher and former Bearcat football coach Rich Schimke, who took administrative leave from his position as football coach due to a post-game incident, spoke vehemently against a culture change he felt came about by district by Superintendent Williams.

Then Williams had his turn, complimenting his top-notch staff and the excellent education his district provides. His fellow trustees and staff present backed up Williams, yet the overall gist of meeting was confusion and contradiction.  

Judging from the quick action by Williams to resolve the salary issue, the PRJUSD teachers who showed up at the meeting protesting a salary cut must have made an impression. Their signs had read, “HONOR YOUR TEACHER’S LOYALTY,” AND “TALK IS CHEAP. MY BILLS ARE NOT.” One sign included two percentage numbers, -1.62 % and -7% in an equation that equaled “UNHAPPY EMPLOYEES.” Was is true that teacher’s paychecks were about to be slashed this coming month?

After the meeting Board President Field Gibson said he and his board members were “scratching their heads” at the reason teachers showed up with signs to protest a salary cut. The board had already offered the three professional development days needed to prevent a lesser paycheck. But the board did decide not to take on any more responsibility for the predicted seven percent rise in health care costs beginning this year. PRJUSD employes would now be responsible for the increase.

The main reason the district held back on taking the usual 50/50 share of the health care costs, according to Gibson, was to create a reserve and to avoid spending from a deficit. As a business insurance specialist, he believes the solution in keeping salaries from going down lies in the complicated, but doable solutions of choosing the right insurance plan. He expressed his longtime efforts to educate and advocate for union involvement in solving the insurance inflation.

At the meeting, teacher representatives from PRPE were not happy with having to deal with rising insurance costs and other possible salary deductions.

“Now they want us to pay everything of the increase,” Lynett said, noting the average pay salary “cut” would range from about $50 to $100 less per paycheck.

“It’s always a question of priorities,” Lynett said at the meeting. “Current district priorities dictate a pay cut once again. The difference now is that the state is not cutting funding, it’s is increasing funding. When will you recognize with clear, tangible measures, the outstanding work of the teachers at the district?”

The public responded with clapping and someone let out a big, “Amen!”

Robert Skinner, a social studies teacher from Paso Robles High School,  received much applause when he said there’s going to be a 1.62 percent decrease with a seven percent problem with their insurance.

“We’ve gone through some hard times. We’ve gone through furlough days. We’ve gone through the district accounting errors of losing 1.5 million dollars. Rough times. But this is ridiculous because you guys are getting 2.5 million dollars in ongoing money,” said Skinner, adding the result will be unhappy employees and a pay cut.

Lynett said, “The seven percent is a bit of a misnomer, because it’s a seven percent increase in out of pocket costs for health and welfare benefits.” Lynett was talking about an average increase in health care costs statewide. The average rate increase is seven percent, he said, but the district no longer wants to contribute anything more to health plans and benefits. The district used to contribute a 50/50 split, and then the union would adjust the plan to lower premium costs.

“Who doesn’t know that that health insurance rates are going up faster than inflation?” Gibson asked. “At some point the district cannot keep up with the increases. That cost is going to be born by the employee.”

Gibson has been advocating for said the board set up a Health Benefits Committee two years ago to find ways to lower health care costs for employees. He said the board brought in a nonprofit to provide training sessions to help school employees navigate the often confusing health plan options. He believes many employees continue to choose the wrong plans for their economic situations. He said he has personally counselled individuals on making these financial decisions right for them, but the union is ultimately and legally responsible for the group financial planning.

“To say that there has been no problem solving ignores what’s going on with the Health Benefits Committee,” Gibson said. “It was pointed out that the biggest paycheck reduction of take home pay is caused by the increase in health care costs. And I’ve been predicting that for years.”

The second component to the “salary cut” would be the 1.62 percent. The percentage represented a bit of a moot point. Since the teacher’s contract was up for renewal, the district had offered three days of professional development, which was certainly offered to the teachers again, and accepted. The 185 day was made to 188 workdays to make up for the furlough days of the past. When Chris Williams had his turn to speak at the meeting, he stood by the board’s budget decision making philosophy, expressing the mission is driven by student needs and employee recognition.

He said, “For four consecutive years the budget has been positively certified, highly recommended by the county, and approved. We gave a 96 percent retention rate with our employees – employees of the year – we’ve had a fantastic itinerary and fantastic teachers.” Williams said the 11 percent pay raise his employees have received over the past three years is the highest pay raise he’s ever been able to provide.

“Our budget is aligned with the state needs as well as the county,” he said.  

Williams voice became more audible when he said, “Did you know that we are the only growing district in the county right now? We have 7,004 students that are being served in this district.” He said that was up from a projected 6,193 children three years ago. He went on to talk about his commitment to the children and the programs that serve their best interest.

“The bottom line is, I believe in what we are doing,” he said.  

Trustee Joan Summers added, “I know this passion when you’re in associations and you always have to push for as much as you can get, but we also have to remember that the school board does not want to go back to furlough days or deficit spending. So there has to be a little compromise there.”

Gibson also the mentioned a time (back in 2013) when he remembered a blizzard of pink slips and furlough days.

“Long before Mr. Williams or any of the newer people came aboard, this board actually voted that we were going to work toward a 10 percent reserve,” he said.

To brace the district for a coming recession, and to avoid being taken over by the state, Gibson said good stewardship would be taking care of the programs the district has worked hard to build, rather than deficit spending and risking cutting programs and firing teachers.

Lynett added, “You can spin this any way you want, use the past to justify necessary cuts. But the cuts only affect employees salaries and benefits, no other parts of the budget. The question clearly becomes, in the end, when do you re-prioritize your expenditures to recognize the needs of your hard working employees and their families? I hope we can do it.”

Apparently, Lynett and Williams’ teams have figured out a way to compromise. The professional development days will be reinstated, and the two percent and 1.5 percent salary increases for the next two years cancel out the rising insurance costs. These are ongoing payments, not one-time payments, said Lynett.

That said, the next board meeting will likely not include protesting teachers.

However, budget priorities and salary “cuts” weren’t the only confusing topics at the meeting. The announcement of Trustee Dave Lambert resigned the school board “effective immediately” came fast at the commencement of the meeting. Board members praised his five-year tenure as well as his contributions to the community.

“He’s contributed greatly, and he’s contributed much with his work with the students and the parents of our students and he will be greatly missed,” said Board Trustee Kathleen Hall.

Board Member Tim Gearhart said, “I worked with him for years and I think he was a valuable asset.”

Gibson also had good things to say about Lambert.

“He and I have served on, I can’t even tell you how many committees, how many boards, but sometimes family and health are more important and I respect his decision,” Gibson said. “He was a valuable member of this board. He was a valuable member of every board we’ve been on. He’s a hard worker and I want to publicly give a shout out to my friend for the 20 plus years that I have personally known all the work that he’s done with kids and youth in our town and I wish him well.”

“I always appreciated everything Dave had to offer,” Board Trustee Joan Summers said. “He was very devoted to the kids — a great man. I wish him all the best.”

Our paper contacted Lambert for comment, but he did not respond. He gave the Paso Robles Daily News the following statement:

“After careful thought and consideration, I have made the decision to resign my position on the Board of Paso Robles Joint Unified School District, effective immediately. At this time, I am very disappointed about recent decisions that have been made, and I can no longer support the direction of the district. I feel it is in the best interest of the district and myself to part ways.

It has been an honor and privilege to serve the students of Paso Robles, and I wish the Board, Administration and District the very best.”

More community members spoke up at the meeting. There was more talk and disappointment from the public about the broadcasting change of the Bearcat football games. The new coverage of home and away football games will be “The Voice of Paso,” a radio station operated by S.W. Martin & Associates (owned by Paso Robles Mayor Steve Martin), and will provide opportunities for student involvement.

“I blame the superintendent for that,” said Cody Ferguson, “Because of the way he handled it.”

Williams was unfazed by the jab, touting the coverage of Paso High’s first public broadcast of girl’s volleyball from Voice of Paso, “As I say clearly, when you have a set of principles and values that you believe in, they aren’t going to change. Whether Cody likes that or not, they will not change.”

When Rich Schimke headed to the podium at the beginning of the public comment part of the meeting, he brought up unethical tactics in hiring and firing at the district, as well as a long list of gripes: censoring, secrets, wasting equipment and unfair treatment of former football Coach Larry Grant. A good portion of the room clapped and hooted after Schimke spoke. When Schimke stepped down from the football coach position early in the year, the community was divided over an incident when he poured syrup in a player’s belly button. A good chunk of the community wanted him fired from the school district. The other portion thought the incident was blown out of proportion. Schimke was not happy about the wrestling wall being painted black after being crimson for many years.

“The last few years I’ve noticed a definite attempt at a culture change,” Schimke said, and went on to acknowledge what he called bullying tactics in hiring and firing, including secretive backroom dealings and censoring of those practices.

“You also have to have a board that listens to the teachers, to the parents, to the public and isn’t wowed by the window candy,” Schimke said. “The honeymoon is over. The smoke screen is disappearing. And people’s eyes are opening to the tactics that are going on. People need to feel safe to speak up whether you agree or disagree with what I’m saying.”

Apparently the public is not so shy when it comes to commenting online.

Many of PRJUSD’s heated issues of late have been posted and commented on social media, and the negativity is bothering some of the board members.

Trustee Joan Summers defended the board’s decision on the football broadcasting’s new bidding process. She also brought up another contentious subject, “I just have to say it,” she said. “The superintendent never asked the board to change the mascot or to change the school colors.”

“I do have to say something about the social media,” Summers went on about locals squabbling in the online comments section of local articles such as one debunking rumors of Bearcat color changes. “I don’t read it but I got hooked into that and I won’t read it again. But some of the comments that were put on there by long-term people, I was really horrified. I’ve been here 40 years and the comments that were made about people coming into our community and not having crimson blood and not being Bearcats. These people left their communities. They left their homes, their schools, their doctors, their friends. They came here to Paso Robles because they believe in what we’re doing. Everybody who comes to work for us. I don’t know why people post those things. It just offends me so much.”

Gibson also offered the voice of reason on localism. He said he bleeds crimson and white. He has Bearcat garb all over his house, and decided to raise his family and now grandkids in Paso because he loves this town. He’s been hearing about the towny talk about the superintendent coming from Clovis and only hiring his Clovis friends. He has been hearing people say this this is one of the most unwelcoming towns they’ve ever been to.

“We hire the best people we can,” he said. “I don’t care where they come from. But statistically most of them don’t come from the valley. But to call people derogatory names and hide cowardly behind social media and run people down because of where they might been from? They uprooted their family. Sold their houses. Moved their families. They came here to be Bearcats and we should welcome them. We really do want the best people for our kids. We really do want the best education for our kids, right? So some of the vitriol and the hate really needs to stop. And that’s going to be my message moving forward for the community.”

You may contact Reporter Beth Giuffre at [email protected] for questions and/or comments.

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