music in the park san jose

.Make Us Whole

Vanessa Gonzales is a special services aide at Lafayette Elementary School and a member of the California School Employee Association, the union for non-credentialed educators. Gonzales may already have a union contract that she’s satisfied with, but that hasn’t stopped her from picketing alongside her credentialed colleagues, who are waiting for a fair and competitive contract.

“I think teachers should get the raise they are asking for—they totally deserve it,” Gonzales says. “If you ask around, there’s a lot of teachers that don’t live by themselves. They live with roommates or significant others or parents. A lot of them have second jobs. Teachers bring work home with them. They need to prep for the next day, so they don’t have a lot of time after school for that.”

Gonzales, 28, lives with her parents and commutes to Lafayette each morning. She arrived in the district as an agency aid two years ago and liked the district so much that she accepted a pay cut to become a district employee. When her union for non-credentialed staff negotiated a pay increase bringing wages up from $19 to more than $25 and getting her back towards the agency wage she arrived with, she was relieved. “That was a huge bump and it meant a lot,” Gonzales says. “Now I want the teachers to get the raise they deserve.”

Gonzales’s colleagues—credentialed teachers and school professionals—are asking for a 14% pay increase, because they say the 12% increase the district has offered them is just not enough to put them on par with their peers in neighboring districts. The 12% increase also doesn’t make up for the cumulative losses from the last contract they signed to their own detriment, which offered them a significantly lower cost-of-living allowance than the state offered colleagues across the district.

Kristi Gingrich, the Lafayette Education Association president and a third-grade teacher at LES, joined the more than two dozen teachers and a similar number of aides, parents and students who stood in front of the school during morning drop-off last week. She carried a sign that said, “Lafayette teachers have the lowest earnings in the county.”

“We’re asking the district to prioritize teachers over other things, because teachers drive the classroom,” Gingrich says. “Parents support us and passed a tax parcel with the intent to help hire and retain teachers. Unfortunately, that money hasn’t surfaced on our salary schedule yet.”

Lafayette has a reputation for being one of the top school districts in the county and the state. It’s also thought of as an affluent case—yet nearly a third of its residents are renters, and a sizable number of families say they’re hanging on by a thread to make ends meet and stay in the community. Gingrich says the assumption that Lafayette teachers are doing fine because the school district is good and the median income of the city appears high compared to others is just plain wrong.

“We are part of a coalition of teachers in the county and we are currently the lowest paid district with that,” Gingrich says. “It’s misinformation to think that we’re well paid because we’re in Lafayette. We had to hire 50 teachers this year.”

While the 12% increase teachers have been offered may sound significant at face value, Gingrich says it’s not enough to make up for what amounts to a not-so-good deal teachers agreed to as they transitioned back to the classroom after the pandemic. 

“In February 2021 we were tired and were grateful to have our kids back in the classroom,” Gingrich says. “We’d worked so well with the district, we were proud to bring our kids back. We were talked into signing a two-year contract with a 2% COLA [cost of living increase].”

This meant that in 2022-23, as the state offered a 6.55% cost of living increase, the teachers in Lafayette were already locked into a 2% increase. “Those around us negotiated for a 7.5% and an 8% increase, and we’d already accepted the two. We had made a mistake,” Gingrich says. “We can see that there are huge surpluses in our budget every year. And now we’re asking our district to prioritize the budget and prioritize teachers who’ve invested years and years of their time in students, so that we can continue having successful students and great teachers.”

Another point of contention is the years of transferable service. Gingrich says that while surrounding districts have lifted the cap for numbers of transferable years, Lafayette is still at five. This means that if someone from San Francisco moved to the Lafayette school district with 20 years of experience, only five of those years of service would be reflected in their salary.

“There is a shortage of teachers—especially seasoned teachers with service experience,” Gingrich says. And, she doesn’t want teachers to be penalized for opting into the Lafayette School District.

Reading Specialist Lindsay McCormick has worked at Lafayette Elementary School for four years. She’s among the teachers who weren’t able to transfer over credit for all years of service when she arrived in the district. McCormick says teachers face a very real dilemma. “Every teacher I speak with here loves their students, loves the community and wants to stay here more than anything. But when you see that you can get paid $30,000 more just by going to a neighboring district, it starts really causing us to prioritize our family’s needs over our professional needs.”

Superintendent Brent Stephens says the district remains committed to ensuring that teachers are paid competitively and that a sound budget is maintained in the future. “We see the same issue about competitiveness that our teachers do. Two years ago, in the pandemic, we entered into a two-year contract with our teachers,” Stephens writes. “Since then, the District received more money than we could have predicted, and now that the contract is open again, both sides want to make meaningful strides on teachers’ salaries. Our 12% offer is reflective of that commitment.”

Stephens calls the district’s current 12% offer “very strong” and says it will amount to “meaningful pay increases for teachers.”

Teachers say that although the district’s offer may seem strong, even the 14% they’re asking for is a concession they’re willing to make. “We’ll still be behind, but this will be a step in the right direction,” Gingrich says.

Gingrich and her colleagues remain hopeful that a win-win solution can be found. “None of us want it to come to that,” Gingrich says when asked about the strike. “We love the district, we love the kids; we just want a fair, competitive contract.”

Parents like Jeanine Smith, the mother of a Lafayette Elementary School student and a Stanley Middle School student, who joined the teacher’s informational picket line before school, say they’re on the side of the teachers.

“I support the teachers and advocate for them having higher salaries because they do such a great job teaching our students,” Smith says. “I would like to see all teachers make a great living, no matter where they live or where they teach.”

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