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An impasse continues between teachers and district officials of the Lucia Mar Unified School District 

With two groups no closer to breaking a months-long stalemate in contract negotiations, a strike is still very much on the table for teachers of the Lucia Mar Unified School District.

“Teachers definitely don’t want to strike, but they’re willing to do it if that’s the only way we can get a good deal,” said Donna Kandel, president of the Lucia Mar Unified Teachers Association, which represents teachers from the largest school district in San Luis Obispo County.

Teachers and district administrators have been unable to reach an agreement since the last contract expired in June 2014. Now in mediation, the negotiations are scheduled to continue on March 25. Union members will be free to vote on whether to strike up to 40 days later.

“Our teachers are more unified than I think we’ve ever been,” Kandel said.

The crux of the disagreement is how the district allocated new revenue, and the 
8 percent discrepancy between what teachers want and what the district says it can afford. In the 2014-15 fiscal year, the state allocated about $6.63 million in additional funds to the district, giving a roughly 10 percent bump to the overall budget. However, district officials have said their hands are tied by funding restrictions and they can only afford to give teachers a 2 percent pay increase.

Union members have stayed firm at 10 percent.

“Our message is: Adjust your priorities and put your money in the classrooms and quality teachers,” Kandel said, adding that union members believe the district pumped its extra revenues back into administrative positions and services.

But Lucia Mar Superintendent Jim Hogeboom told New Times it’s not so simple: “People think we have a secret stash of money somewhere; that is not the case.”

The district has publicized that Lucia Mar teachers make more on average than reportedly comparable schools. According to a district salary table, Lucia Mar teachers make an average $61,613 per year, based on the highest and lowest salaries; while teachers in the next largest comparable district, Paso Robles Joint Unified School District, earn an average of $59,192.

But those numbers don’t provide a fair comparison, argues Kandel, who said about 15 percent of teachers at Nipomo High School have fled south to Santa Maria for salaries $20,000 greater than those in Lucia Mar schools. Using the same average calculations as Lucia Mar, teachers in the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District make about $8,000 more per year, on average, while teachers at Santa Maria-Bonita School District pull in nearly $13,000 more per year. She said the loss of teachers to higher-paying districts will ultimately hurt students as institutional knowledge and training for new teachers fades from Lucia Mar classrooms. Ultimately, she said teachers want a more equitable distribution of the new district funds.

Similarly, Hogeboom argued that the union’s own salary comparisons are unfair, and said the comparisons should draw from districts of similar budgets, not just geographic proximity. If the district were to buckle under the union’s 10 percent increase, he said it would require “drastic cuts in our budget,” including layoffs and the elimination of support programs for new teachers. Many cuts have already been made, and reserves drawn down in order to make the mandatory expenditures and provide a 2 percent increase. He balked the notion that administrators have ballooned their own salaries, as well as the union position that attrition rates are higher than other schools.

“Our retention rate is lower than—or equal to—other districts,” he said.

If further mediated negotiations fail, and teachers go through with the strike, Hogeboom said the district is talking with advisors and preparing to use substitutes and administrators to keep classes open in some capacity.

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