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Paso Unified teachers rally for higher pay as district, union go back and forth on salary negotiations 

In the late afternoon on Oct. 12, a small crowd began to form outside the Paso Robles Unified School District office. Teachers, parents, and kids wearing red and maroon T-shirts grew in numbers before taking the rally to the street, where passing cars honked in support.

One young Glen Speck Elementary student held up a homemade sign that read, "Give teachers what they need," handwritten with multicolored markers.

click to enlarge YOUNG SUPPORTER A Glen Speck Elementary student holds up a homemade sign at the Rally for Paso Robles Teachers, held Oct. 12. - PHOTO BY MALEA MARTIN
  • Photo By Malea Martin
  • YOUNG SUPPORTER A Glen Speck Elementary student holds up a homemade sign at the Rally for Paso Robles Teachers, held Oct. 12.

Kristin Usilton, an English literacy development intervention teacher at Glen Speck, was one of the event organizers. About 100 people joined the rally, which happened while the district's school board conducted its bimonthly meeting. Usilton said they were rallying for a higher salary.

"We've been in negotiations for a pay raise, and they just keep counteroffering with the most pathetic offers," Usilton said.

Paso Robles Public Educators President Justin Pickard said the union began pay negotiations in September with an initial proposal for a salary increase of just more than 5 percent, to match what the district gets from the cost of living adjustment (COLA). The COLA is an increase in funding schools get from the government to account for inflation and cost of living.

The district first counteroffered a 1 percent increase to the salary schedule. The union came back on Oct. 6, again asking for an increase equivalent to the COLA. This time, the district countered with a 1.5 percent increase.

Pickard said that while the union hasn't solidified another counter offer yet, "a lot of people are still advocating for full COLA."

"This last negotiation was just so offensive to all the teachers, we couldn't just stand back anymore," Usilton said of why she organized the rally. "It's so frustrating."

The union and its members point to the district's large 20 percent reserve and the COLA as evidence that Paso Robles Unified can afford to give teachers a larger raise than what's been offered so far.

"Every time they talk about a pay raise, they mention that the district has no money," Usilton said. "The district right now has over 20 percent reserve, and we're getting a 5.07 percent addition in money from the cost of living that's coming into our district, which in most districts it goes straight to their teachers because they're the ones that deserve it."

District Superintendent Curt Dubost said much of the 20 percent reserves are funds intended "for, first and foremost, COVID protection measures, also learning loss mitigation from the closure and social-emotional needs of kids," thanks to state and federal pandemic aid.

"All these funds are one-time though, not ongoing monies, and that's where the challenges lie," Dubost told New Times. "We have to responsibly spend down this large reserve for the purposes that were intended. But we can't do so and make the mistakes that were made here in the past."

Some of those past blunders still haunt the district.

"Coincidentally, on the agenda Tuesday night was the district's final response, hopefully, to the grand jury report," Dubost said after the meeting, "a cautionary tale that called the district to task twice in the last decade or so of overspending, being too rosy in our projections, and ending up in negative certification as a result."

As New Times previously reported, the November 2020 SLO County grand jury report blames accounting errors, a lack of oversight, and district leadership—including former Superintendent Chris Williams, the former board of trustees, and the SLO County Office of Education—for draining reserve funds between 2015 and 2018 and sending the district into financial crisis. Williams resigned in late 2018.

"Obviously, committing one-time monies to ongoing expenditures can't be sustained," Dubost said.

The cost of living adjustment that the district receives, however, is not one-time money. That's why teachers are pushing for an equivalent raise.

"COLA is ongoing, and it's specifically labeled cost of living adjustment that should be going to employees," union President Pickard said. "There's costs for employees that have risen: We see people move, we see people move out of the profession. ... We might be able to [keep] teachers for two to three years, but we're going to see a heavy turnover. They'll leave for other districts."

Another big issue the district is facing, along with the majority of school districts statewide, is decreasing enrollment. This is mainly due to birth rates steadily declining, said district Chief Business Officer Brad Pawlowski. He said that from 2020 to 2021, the district's enrollment went down by 221 students.

"Then we projected this year our enrollment to be 6,602, and right now between month one and two in our current school calendar we're right at 6,511, so we're almost down 100 more than what we projected," Pawlowski said.

Schools are funded based on average daily attendance, so a decrease in enrollment is bad news for budgets.

"It's the huge elephant in the room," Dubost said.

Pickard agrees that declining enrollment is an issue. But given the outcry by teachers over the district's most recent salary offer, he said the union will keep pushing to find a resolution that works for both sides.

"Last year we had quite a few negotiation sessions with the district that were non-salary in nature, that revolved around the ever-changing pandemic," he said. "We settled with eight different memorandums of understanding, and I think that's a really good indicator of being able to cooperatively work with one another. ... I feel confident that we're going to be able to work together to make this happen." Δ

Reach Staff Writer Malea Martin at mmartin@newtimesslo.com.

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