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Stuck in the middle with you 

Power plant revenue above, oil subsidies below what can be done about the salary gap for South County teachers?

During the golden age of The Simpsons, the FOX Network ran an episode in which the teachers' association fronted by series mainstay Edna Krabappel went on strike to protest budget shortfalls at Springfield Elementary. The plotline culminated in a classic scene: Krabappel and Principal Seymour Skinner went before voters at a community forum to debate the problem.

The oft-sarcastic homeroom teacher first captured the crowd with a demagogic plea to help remedy the dire state of affairs in the local classroom. The public then swayed with Skinner's response that the district would require new taxes to fill the gap. The momentum shifted back and forth through a comic digression of eloquence, perpetually focused on the primary dilemma: a need for money that simply doesn't exist.

Any educator will say that you don't get into the game with delusions of living a decadent lifestyle. Still, in recent years, classroom labor discord has proven as much a constant as have cuts to the statewide education budget. In this age of brutal housing markets, where can teachers even earn a living wage? Barstow? Richmond? East L.A.? Certainly nowhere on the Central Coast, many argue.

For that matter, nowhere on the Central Coast is the situation as challenging as in the posh hills of Arroyo Grande, the gentrified sands of Pismo Beach, and the contentious halls of the Lucia Mar Unified School District's 17 schools. Here, labor disagreements between educators and the district establishment continue to intensify. The Lucia Mar Teachers' Association silenced negotiations on Oct. 24 by declaring an impasse and asking its membership to work to contract for a brief term.

The Lucia Mar school board will reconvene on Dec. 12 with new bodies in three of its seven seats.

"The new board could choose to negotiate with us, or they could choose not to … the old board was certainly more reactive than proactive," union president Kevin Statom said. "Right now, we're just trying to make our case to the community."

Lucia Mar offered the teachers a 7-percent raise for the current salary term, but the union also demanded a three-year contract to account for the rising cost of living. From the advent of negotiations, the board of trustees declared that assuring such guarantees might threaten the future solvency of the district.

"To expect public agencies to increase their salaries so that all of their employees can purchase a home in a high market area is both unfair and unrealistic," agreed Arroyo Grande mayor Tony Ferrara.

Days after talks broke down, district administration called in a mediator, who will likely enter the scene by mid-January. According to Superintendent Deborah Flores, the board plans to discuss the situation during a special meeting on Jan. 10.

Before that, during the Dec. 12 meeting, the new board will get a crash course on the state of district finances.

In the community scope, the quality of education in the South County rests at the issue's core, as union reps claim that literally dozens of well-qualified and experienced educators have migrated in recent years. Statom asserted that patching or at least buttressing against the increasing salary gap will not only stop the present leak, but also prevent disaster when the baby-boomers begin their inevitable exodus.

"In our district, half of our teachers are over 50," he said. "How are we going to attract or retain these great new teachers when they see our salary schedule?"

However, as school board President Erik Howell pointed out, California's dilemma proves thornier than that of fictional Springfield. In this state, districts often find themselves shackled by the ironclad provisions of Prop 13.

The oft-challenged taxpayer rights' initiative froze property tariffs solid when it went into effect in 1978. The item prevents the frightful tax bumps Principal Skinner warned of. It's also continually earned strong political support from the tide of public opinion. Most famously, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger advisor Warren Buffet used a length of Prop 13 contention to hang himself in the columns of the Wall Street Journal in 2003. Within weeks, a Sacramento posse of fiscal conservatives ran the Berkshire Hathaway exec straight back to Omaha.

Of course, Prop 13 constitutes a demon faced by every school district in the Golden State, particularly ones in working-class communities. If defection rates prove higher in Lucia Mar which anecdotal evidence supports the reason would likely be swells in the Central Coast salary market.

Do teachers really earn that much more in Lucia Mar's neighboring districts?

Absolutely.

Data compiled by the Department of Education for the 2004-05 school year show Lucia Mar teachers' salaries bottoming out in the county, despite the district's notoriously high cost of living. On average, a South County educator pulled in $53,040, a figure far exceeded by San Luis Coastal Unified ($60,215), Coast Unified ($60,153), Santa Maria-Bonita ($59,687), and Santa Maria Joint Union ($62,113).

School board members agree that the pay isn't competitive but neither are the sources of funding.

Pacific Gas and Electric's 2,200-megawatt Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant provides a torrent of taxable revenue for San Luis Coastal. In northern Santa Barbara County, oil companies like Chevron and Conoco-Phillips help bankroll the two districts serving the growing city of Santa Maria.

Meanwhile, one of the South County's most significant industrial operation the Unocal oil fields outside of Nipomo closed down after regulators discovered a 30-year-old petrochemical leak. When dealing with such funding challenges in a Prop 13 environment, officials assert, Lucia Mar simply cannot remain competitive.

"San Luis Coastal is funded on a whole different basis," said deputy superintendent Mary Stark, a member of the district negotiation team. "It's not an apples-to-apples kind of comparison."

"We're stuck geographically between two districts that pay a lot more," Statom responded. "A new teacher doesn't care how districts are funded, and, unless our district picks up on that reality, I fear for what's going to happen."

Along with the rest of the state, Lucia Mar received a boost from the Nov. 7 passage of a $10.4-billion education bond and Schwarzenegger's latest restitutionary education budget. As a result, the district can expect to see a healthy bump in the near future. Still, in one of the outgoing board's final actions, the trustees voted to consider six new classified non-teaching positions. In conjunction with the board's simultaneous decision to award salary hikes to three upper-level administrators, news of the move fell sour on the ears of union leaders.

Superintendent Flores defended the decision.

"These are positions that were cut and are being considered for restoration," she explained. "We hear all the time from students, teachers, and administration that the custodial cuts have had a big impact.

"Still, it's the board's decision whether or not to deal with it or take care of the salary gap first."

Arroyo Grande Planning Commissioner Caren Ray expressed concern that a compensation disparity could eventually impact property values in the area. She believes that if enough teachers defect and Lucia Mar fails to attract qualified new applicants, the quality of education in the district could suffer to the extent of discouraging families looking to relocate to the South County.

"Lucia Mar is in danger of becoming if it is not already a farm-district where beginning teachers start, then leave for greener pastures in neighboring districts," Ray said. "This is no longer just an educational issue. It's a planning issue."

A survey conducted by union reps prior to the impasse declaration found that roughly a quarter of teachers expressed their intent to leave if a favorable agreement to the negotiations could not be reached.

"You get what you pay for," District 4 Supervisor Katcho Achadjian said. "If the salary is higher somewhere else and the cost of living is lower, you will lose good people."

Staff Writer Patrick M. Klemz can be reached at pklemz@newtimesslo.com.

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