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Manhattan Beach students caught in middle of teacher pay dispute

Manhattan Beach Unified School District and its teachers' union have reached an impasse in contract negotiations and are in mediation now. Meanwhile, the union has directed teachers to refuse writing college recommendations among other measures, until a favorable agreement is reached.
Manhattan Beach Unified School District and its teachers' union have reached an impasse in contract negotiations and are in mediation now. Meanwhile, the union has directed teachers to refuse writing college recommendations among other measures, until a favorable agreement is reached.
Tami Abdollah/KPCC

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Manhattan Beach senior Rafeed Kahn started school last week eager to begin his final year at Mira Costa High and get started on college applications. Then he learned that teachers would be turning down student requests for recommendations until further notice.

"What's going on shocked me, because I had no idea how to react," Kahn told Manhattan Beach Unified School District board members at a meeting Wednesday night.

The Manhattan Beach Unified Teachers Assn. decided last week to issue a number of directives to its roughly 300 members that include telling teachers to not commit to letters of recommendation; not sponsor or advise clubs; not open their classrooms before class, at lunch, or after school; and not volunteer for extracurricular or additional duties.

Union President Karl Kurz said the tactics were necessary after failed contract negotiations with the district. Teachers have gone five years with no raises or cost of living increases and 10 years without an increase that matches inflation, Kurz said. This has occurred despite the district's roughly $16 million reserve; roughly 30 percent of a more than $50 million budget, or 10 times the state-mandated amount, according to district figures.

A small district, with one high school, one middle school and five elementary schools, Manhattan Beach Unified has maintained its reserve despite a 22 percent cut to state funding over the last four years, said Manhattan Unified Superintendent Mike Matthews. It has not had to lay off teachers or institute furlough days, unlike many neighboring districts.

But Matthews said the district's reserve would disappear in two to three years if voters don't pass a statewide measure to increase taxes on the November ballot.

"We have to look at the long run," Matthews said. "What we put on the table for our employees is a 3 percent raise for this year, and we just don't know the future beyond that. We're very willing to negotiate beyond that once we know the budget [situation]. I think we're probably one of the few districts in the state putting any money on the table at all."

Upscale community

In many ways these facts are a reflection of the community and the support it has brought the district. Manhattan Beach is a less than 4 square-mile ocean-front community that is home to roughly 35,300 people. According to 2010 U.S. Census data, the city is 79.3 percent white and 8.6 percent Asian. The median value of a home is $1 million and the average household income is $131,723.

The district this year has expanded a pilot program funded primarily by parents and a donation by Chevron to put iPads in the hands of every middle school student. Union officials argue that the district and the community's priorities are not in the right place. Teachers most directly impact student performance, both union and district officials agree, and the district has consistently scored near the top in the annual release of standardized test scores.

"Has anyone ever been to Manhattan Beach and seen the way people live here?" said Shawn Chen, who is a union organizer and English teacher at Mira Costa High. "This place is not in touch with reality. People live in million-dollar homes. That's the beginning — that's the lot value. I grew up here. I know...

"Our school district, our schools, our problems are not the same as the rest of California. In many ways that's lucky. In other ways, the district is using that propaganda to convince the citizens that we don't deserve [raises] and if they look at the realities of this budget, they would see that it's possible...We are not the rest of California. Our financial reality is different."

Negotiations for a new three-year contract began in March; the most recent contract ended June 30, Kurz said. In July, the district declared an impasse. A state mediator was meeting with both parties Thursday.

Teachers have asked for a 9 percent raise, or a staggered raise over three years equivalent to 10 percent, Chen said. The total amount would equal roughly $2 million in salary increases, union officials said. But the district said it doesn't have the money to do this, and offered a 3 percent one-year increase with changes to the medical plan that teachers say would cost them long-term.

"What they're offering us is a one-time bonus coupled with an ongoing cut to health and welfare, which ultimately will become a revenue stream for them," Chen said.

The disagreements between the parties hit school campuses this week. High school students came to school Wednesday dressed in white to emphasize their neutrality and innocence in the negotiations process. Meanwhile, some teachers Thursday wore their blue union T-shirts to show their solidarity to their cause.

Caught in the middle

"We as students cannot pick a side because we don't know which side to really go for," Rafeed told school board members at their regular Wednesday night meeting.

Rafeed, 17, wants to go to UC San Diego next year and wants his application done in time for November submissions. "I came here to say one thing and one thing only: What can the students do? Where do we turn to and what information, what do we know? We know nothing."

Chen, who also teaches Rafeed English, said teachers have no other choice.

"Of course they're caught in the middle and it's unfortunate, but it's the district's job to do what's right and make that right," Chen said. "If we want kids to learn to speak for themselves...they're not going to learn how to do that if they're being instructed by doormats."

The issue has ignited the small community and hit close to home for some teachers who are also the parents of high school seniors. Two spoke to the school board Wednesday night.

James Locke, a science teacher at Manhattan Beach Middle School whose daughter is a senior at Mira Costa High, said he felt teachers deserved a reasonable raise but was "hurt, angered and disappointed" by the union's decision to withhold letters of recommendation.

"You threaten the future of my daughter," Locke said. "These letters are very important to her.... I now challenge both sides to solve this, end this now, because regardless of blame, regardless of righteousness felt in your cause, [students] are the ones you are hurting. These children, who have no voice in the matter, are the ones that will pay," Locke said.

Michelle Lautanen has taught at Pacific Elementary School in Manhattan Beach for 10 years. Her son is a senior at Mira Costa High. She gave an impassioned statement to board members Wednesday.

"My son has looked forward to applying to college for about 10 years," Lautanen said. "That's all we've talked about. And you're stealing that away from every student in the class of 2013. The way you are behaving, you have made it war."

Alternative plan

District officials and administrators have said they've come up with a "Plan B" and have been taking the names of students who are requesting recommendations and will have an administrator write them. it.

"Administrators who already have full-time jobs have said 'I'll step up I'll help out,'" Matthews said. "We'll get to know the students and write those letters for them."

Matthews said the 15 to 18 volunteers include the Board of Trustees, high school administrators, middle school administrators and some elementary school principals, in addition to himself.

Rafeed, though happy to have some solution, was not quite happy or confident in the ongoing mediation process between the teachers and the administrators.

"It's putting a Band-Aid over a dam that is about to burst," Rafeed told board members. "With all respect sirs, you do not know us as well as our teachers do. You cannot write us the same letters of recommendation...please find a solution soon."

Teachers argue that the district has continued to take advantage of their commitment to education. They point to districts such as Redondo Beach Unified, which, despite requiring teachers take furlough days, pays them on average $1,200 more. Beverly Hills Unified gave its teachers raises this year during their contract negotiations, bringing their scheduled salary increases or "step and column," to beyond $90,000 for a teacher with 22 years experience — roughly $10,000 more than that teacher would receive at Manhattan Unified.

"We’re saying make teachers your priority, that's what we're asking for," Kurz said. "If not, we have teachers leaving and going to other school districts where they make more money."

Paul Silva, publisher and editor in chief of The Beach Reporter, which covers the Manhattan Beach community, has followed the negotiations closely. He also has a son who is a senior at Mira Costa High. Silva, a lifelong Manhattan Beach resident attended the district's schools as did his wife, brothers and his older son, who graduated two years ago and is now at Harvard University.

As a father, Silva said he hoped the two parties could negotiate an agreement quickly and in time for most college application deadlines in the next 60 days.

"I don't think this is a coincidence that the teachers came up with this now, there's some time to exert some pressure and do a lot of damage," Silva said. "It's gotten people's attention...I want the teachers to write their recommendations and I want them to argue about something else."

But attention is what the teachers want.

"This is our desperation," Chen said. "We have to make the parents wake up and see if anyone will speak up for us...We are desperately trying to get their attention, to make them look through these numbers and decide for themselves if they want to support teachers."

The teachers' union has been posting regular updates to its online blog On Tuesday, Matthews sent an email to parents explaining the negotiations and including a point by point district response to union allegations in "An Open Letter to Angry Parents of Manhattan Beach."

Meanwhile, mediation is underway. But there's a fair bit of student skepticism, Rafeed said: "I hope for a solution, I wish for it, but...I'm not confident a solution can be reached within a reasonable amount of time."

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Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).