SAN JOSE -- In the award-winning Evergreen School District, there has been no districtwide science fair this year. At some open houses, administrators this spring opened classrooms for visiting families when teachers didn't show up. On many campuses, theater productions, after-school sports and tutoring have disappeared.
Angry over stalled contract talks, many Evergreen teachers have been "working to rule," refusing to work beyond the prescribed school day, meaning nothing extracurricular. The district and the Evergreen Teachers Association have been at a bargaining impasse since October, and the union is briefing its members on what to expect in a strike.
For a year, the union and the southeast San Jose district have been negotiating over a contract to replace the one that expired in June. Salaries are only a small issue -- despite being a low-revenue district, the Evergreen salary schedule is already toward the top among Santa Clara County districts. However, Evergreen believes that unless it controls ballooning health care costs, it's headed toward insolvency.
The 600-member union insists the stumbling block is the district's unwillingness to tap into reserves.
The insurance issue and tight budget are common to union disputes. The issues are core to teachers, who have forgone cost-of-living increases and shouldered heavier loads during a half-decade of recession. Now, with more money flowing to K-12 schools, many unions say it's time for payback. But districts still worry about fluctuating income and growing costs.
Among other Bay Area districts at impasse, according to the California Teachers Association, are Fremont Unified in Fremont; Millbrae elementary; Bayshore elementary in Daly City; Las Lomitas elementary in Menlo Park; and the San Mateo County Office of Education, whose members have authorized a strike.
In Evergreen, it appears mistrust and resentment have led the sides to dig in, even as a mediator tries to guide them to common ground.
"We're deficit spending at an unsustainable rate," Superintendent Kathy Gomez said. This school year, the district expects to spend $97.6 million but take in only $91.8 million. Evergreen is one of the few districts in Santa Clara County, she said, that still pays 100 percent of health insurance premiums for both employees and their families. The district proposed capping those contributions at 2011-12 levels.
Health insurance costs will eat into the surplus and drive the district into the red in two years, Gomez said. However, the union says the district is crying wolf. "They've made this claim numerous times," said teachers union President Brian Wheatley, and financial disaster has never come to pass. He characterized the district's deficit projections as "Chicken Little scenarios that have no basis in reality."
Evergreen teachers have not had a cost-of-living raise for six years, although they have continued to earn increases for longevity and university credits. They've seen class sizes grow and support services shrink.
"I'm very upset, I'm very angry," said Jeff Beckley, a sixth-grade teacher at O.B. Whaley Elementary School. "We've given them distinguished schools. We've given them Title I academic achievement schools," he said, referring to two state awards for public schools. "It hurts our morale to know we are not appreciated."
That resentment of district ingratitude permeates teacher protests. District officials see the union fanning flames of anger, expressed in sometimes profanity-laced emails and outbursts at board meetings. On May 9, the union staged a mock funeral, with members donning paper tombstones for the death of respect, quality teachers and integrity in Evergreen.
Teachers passed a no-confidence vote on Gomez. The board unanimously reinforced its confidence in her.
The district's predictions of a precarious financial future are reinforced by the Santa Clara County Office of Education, which state law charges with fiscal oversight. Because Evergreen suffers from declining enrollment, "revenues will fall more quickly than expenditures, and long-term structural solutions are necessary," wrote Jason E. Vann, an adviser with the county office, in a letter reaffirming that the district lies in a financial danger zone. He advised that before increasing salaries, benefits or other expenditures, the district needs to ensure ongoing increased revenue.
But with ever-uncertain state funding, that's difficult to do. Gomez said this week that it's not yet known how Gov. Jerry Brown's revised budget proposal, much less the Legislature's final version, would affect the district's offer. The passage of Proposition 30 in the fall simply provided temporarily stable, not increased, school funding.
The district pegs its reserve at 14.7 percent; the teachers union says it's 22 percent. Evergreen has offered to open its books to the union, which so far has declined the offer. "We know the books," Wheatley said. "The books are designed to create the potential worst-case scenario." He said given the district's lack of credibility and accuracy, teachers refuse to make concessions.
The starting salary in Evergreen is $49,401 for 184 days of work. Teachers may reach $88,975 in 12 years if they earn additional college credits, and they earn small increases in four-year increments up to 24 years.
"We have always been a very generous district," board President Jim Zito said. But state law requires the district to produce a balanced budget projected over three years. Facing a $5 million deficit in 2014-15, the district has to trim expenses. Thus, he said, "we've cut and gone to the bone in so many ways, we have to go back and address how we pay benefits."
Parents who sympathize with teachers fear a strike and dislike the disruption imposed on their children. Celina Martinez, mother of five children, said teachers "deserve all they are asking for and more."
The acrimony is taking a toll. Some teachers blame the board. "Years of building a 'family' in Evergreen are being destroyed by their actions," said Allisa Nozaki, a fifth-grade teacher at Norwood Creek Elementary.
However, other teachers decry "adult bullying" by union supporters. One teacher, who did not want her name used because she fears harassment, said she can't afford to go on strike and thinks the union demands are unrealistic.
Parent Christine Tarver, who criticizes the "work to rule" decision, said, "Every time a teacher says, 'I'll only do what I am paid to do,' he or she insults every volunteer who has worked tirelessly."
The delays in grading papers, the cancellation of musicals, the failure of teachers to resist union pressure all exact a cost, she said. "The continued damage to my children's education is inexcusable."
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.
Value of total compensation and salaries in selected elementary districts in Santa Clara County
District Total compensation* Salary at BA+60, Step 10**
Evergreen $96,221 $79,939
Saratoga $92,664 $75,772
Cupertino $85,178 $75,197
Oak Grove $83,679 $68,633
Franklin-McKinley $83,092 $72,802
Alum Rock $83,058 $72,497
Los Altos $82,880 $69,133
Sunnyvale $82,232 $70,319
Mountain View-Whisman $82,004 $67,202
Region 5 elementary average*** $81,407 $69,061
Los Gatos $81,078 $73,011
Berryessa $80,071 $67,318
Loma Prieta $67,196 $62,191
* Total compensation includes salary plus average health and welfare benefit contribution.
** Bachelor's degree plus 60 semester units, with 10 years' teaching experience
*** Elementary districts in Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey counties
Source: School Services of California