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Paso school district deals with federal investigation, standstill with union 

Between a federal investigation and a negotiations standstill with the teachers union, the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District is facing conflict on multiple fronts right now. Meanwhile, the district confirmed a new school board member who will add another perspective as these issues heat up.

The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation into the district on Nov. 15 after receiving allegations that the district discriminated against Latinx and limited English proficient parents and community members.

The complaint alleges that these groups were "barred from meaningful participation in school board meetings," according to a Dec. 2 statement from the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), which together brought forth the complaint.

click to enlarge HIGHER PAY At this Oct. 12 union rally, a young student showed support for teacher salary increases. The teachers union declared impasse in its negotiations with the district, though the district does not agree that the two parties are at a standstill. The district also recently came under investigation for allegations of discrimination. - FILE PHOTO BY MALEA MARTIN
  • File Photo By Malea Martin
  • HIGHER PAY At this Oct. 12 union rally, a young student showed support for teacher salary increases. The teachers union declared impasse in its negotiations with the district, though the district does not agree that the two parties are at a standstill. The district also recently came under investigation for allegations of discrimination.

"I'm fluent in Spanish, and I have watched some of the board meetings, and it has really been abysmal in terms of the percentage of what has actually been interpreted," said Frank Kopcinski, directing attorney at CRLA's SLO office. "The issues are still ongoing and there's not adequate interpretation services at board meetings."

District Superintendent Curt Dubost said in a Dec. 2 statement that the district has "corrected already any deficiencies in that compliance."

"The district firmly denies any discrimination against Latino students or their families and has numerous initiatives to ensure participation of all members of our community," he stated.

Kopcinski said Paso People's Action, a grassroots organization promoting community-led advocacy in Paso, brought the issues to CRLA. Yessenia Echevarria with Paso People's Action said the potential Georgia Brown school closure is a key piece of the picture.

"We were notified a year ago of this possible school closure, and the language of the possible school closure is very confusing," Echevarria said. "And so our biggest concern is participation materials, to make sure that they're being not only translated, but translated adequately."

From here, the investigation is in the Office for Civil Rights' hands.

"It's possible that the district will come to some sort of resolution with Paso People's Action," Kopcinski said. "If that doesn't happen, then OCR [Office for Civil Rights] could issue a noncompliance determination and provide a proposed resolution. But if the district doesn't want to enter into a resolution agreement, then the OCR can issue an enforcement action. ... They can suspend funds, or they can refer to the Department of Justice to bring legal proceedings against them."

Meanwhile, the Paso Robles Public Educators union recently declared an impasse in its negotiations with the district. The union didn't accept the district's most recent salary increase offer of 2.5 percent.

"[The district] said that they didn't think we were at impasse," said Jim Lynett, executive director of Paso Robles Public Educators.

So now it's up to the Public Employment Relations Board to determine if the two parties are indeed at a standstill, he explained.

"We believe that we continue to have good relations with the union leadership and continue to have constructive, productive dialogue as we argue through some significant issues," Superintendent Dubost told New Times.

From Lynett's perspective, the allegations brought forth in the federal investigation and the ongoing union negotiations are not entirely separate issues.

"When you are not supporting the teachers in terms of their salary and benefits, and you're not showing that appreciation and support when your financial situation is the best it's been probably since 2007, then you get people whose morale is damaged and they're much less likely to work together to support each other and find common solutions," Lynett said. "So yeah, they're related."

Dubost reiterated his previous stance: That while the district's reserve is large, it is mostly one-time money from COVID-19 relief.

"To find that sweet spot that takes advantage of the one-time monies that we have, and finding a way responsibly to spend down the excessive reserve, is the dilemma that we're all facing," he said.

And with new board member W. Frank Triggs now in the mix, appointed to replace resigned trustee Jim Reed, the district will have a fresh voice as it continues to navigate these issues.

"The district told us that they were going to go back to the school board at their next meeting, which is Dec. 14, and discuss this further," Lynett said. "They'll have a new board member by that time, and secondly, the budget from the governor for next year will appear around the 10th of January. So those are all factors in this situation." Δ

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