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Still a contract divided 

A Jan. 18 mediation session between South County teachers and the Lucia Mar Unified School District concluded with no contract agreement and an unclear picture for the future of labor talks.

Months of stalled negotiations over an extended contract sought by the union prompted Lucia Mar in late October to seek the guidance of a third-party mediator. Taking the time first to acclimatize board members voted in during the Nov. 7 election, the district called to reconvene talks last week. Representatives from both camps entered 2007 with hopes of bridging the divide that seemed so cavernous during a flurry of unsuccessful fall negotiations.

Yet, instead of bringing about a compromise, the session served to highlight just how far apart the two sides remain in forging an agreement.

"They're not at a trivial impasse," mediator Tony Butka said following the session. "It's certainly not going to be simple."

Superintendent Deborah Flores related a stronger sense of optimism among district administrators. She explained that two new developments since the New Year the release of the Schwarzenegger budget and a promising mid-year report of existing expenditures bode well for reaching an agreement, but declined to comment on the status of negotiations.

"I can't characterize it," she said of the latest talks. "I think we can work out the extended contract."

The concrete resolution reached on Jan. 18 was a covenant by the district to work with the union on a future contract, with no actual discussion yet undertaken in the terms of that potential agreement. On the basis of current progress, some educators complained, setting a timetable for joining the two plateaus may as well be measured in geologic time.

A union memo posted after the session reported that "no discussion or offer of anything close to [standard cost-of-living adjustments] in subsequent years" was made by administration. Calls to negotiation team members were not returned as of press time.

Union representatives desire to ink a three-year accord that assures South County educators of a salary-increase schedule more closely resembling the upwardly parabolic cost-of-living curve evident in many Lucia Mar communities. Union members have pointed repeatedly to the warning signs of a looming teacher exodus that would impact the quality of education between Nipomo and Shell Beach.

However, the underlying need for a long-term contract really isn't in debate, nor are the statistics illustrating the breadth of the salary gap (see "Stuck in the middle with you," Dec. 7). Rather, the question is whether the situation is a product of insufficient funds or bad prioritization. With the possible future bankruptcy of the district an imminent concern, administrators must help the board strike a balance between keeping quality teachers and protecting important education support programs.

Mediator Butka called this type of impasse more common in recent years. He attributed the phenomenon to drastically rising Cost of Living Adjustments (COLA) figures in the contracts of certain California districts raising the collective bar.

Butka also alluded to the "greater disconnect between the real estate market and available affordable housing."

A statewide funding scheme favoring districts with industrial constituents like San Luis Coastal's Diablo Canyon and constraints laid down by the voter-approved Prop 13 taxpayer rights initiative prove two more of the debate's less animated players.

The two sides already agreed on a 7.5-percent increase for the 2006-07 school year. The next mediation session will take place March 2, but, according to Flores, the district hopes to hammer out a settlement before then.


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