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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on April 1st, 2021, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 22, Issue 5 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 22, Issue 5

Teachers union, Santa Maria-Bonita district are back at the bargaining table after months of tension over in-person plans

By MALEA MARTIN

When Adam Elementary PE teacher and mother Desirae Felix heard that teachers were being asked to teach from their classrooms at the start of the school year last fall—despite students still being at a distance—her mind immediately went to who was going to watch her own kids.


NEGOTIATING A RETURN
Some Santa Maria Elementary Educators Association members feel that their district hasn’t been transparent enough about plans for returning to in-person instruction.
FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

As a member of the Santa Maria Elementary Education Association (SMEEA), the union that represents teachers in the Santa Maria-Bonita School District, Felix was soon relieved to hear that the union had reached a memorandum of understanding with the district during the summer, which included allowing teachers to bring their kids with them to campus. While some teachers had applied for waivers so they could teach from home, Felix didn’t. 

“The plan was, you can bring your kids and they could either be in your classroom or they can either go to a room where they would pay somebody to watch your kids while you’re teaching,” Felix said. 

But just days before teachers were set to return to campus, the district made a change: “The next thing you hear is, ‘You can’t bring them,’” Felix said, at least not for the first couple of days while teachers were attending district meetings.

“It was incredibly stressful,” Felix said of having to scramble to find child care.

SMEEA President Jose Segura sees the incident as the start of ongoing tension between the district and its teachers over what planning for a return to the classroom should look like.

“We started our year off with a grievance that we eventually won: The district was required to compensate teachers for whatever expenses they had to incur in order to find appropriate child care during those first few days,” Segura said. “But that was kind of the beginnings of the problems.”

That tension most recently manifested in late February, when the district canceled negotiations for a return to in-person instruction agreement. 

Initially, it was the district that reached out to the union in late December to kick-start those negotiations after Gov. Gavin Newsom introduced the Safe Schools for All Plan, Superintendent Luke Ontiveros told the Sun

“One of the conditions [of Newsom’s plan] was that districts were obligated to negotiate the return with the employer association,” Ontiveros said.

As the new year rolled around, Segura said, “things were moving a lot faster”: The first round of negotiations happened Feb. 8 using interest-based bargaining, a type of collaborative negotiation, and a professional facilitator. The parties agreed to come back to the bargaining table on March 3. 

“We came away with a nice document of interests and options that could really take us to the next level as far as being closer to an agreement,” Segura said. “We thought things were going great.”

Then on Feb. 24, Segura said, the district canceled negotiations. 

“They basically just told us, ‘We don’t have to negotiate with you, so we’re not,’” he said.

From the district’s perspective, the decision was rooted in legislative changes coming down from the state level. Gov. Newsom’s initial proposal eventually morphed into the Safe and Open Schools Plan, which Ontiveros said removed the requirement that districts negotiate with their employers associations.

“Because the specifics of that legislation changed midstream … we wanted to get through the specifics, so we canceled that March 3 date,” Ontiveros explained.

From Segura’s union perspective, just because the district was no longer required to negotiate a return to in-person, didn’t mean it should abandon those efforts entirely. 

“The governor had backed off of this idea that there should be collective bargaining between the association or your labor organizations, and your employer,” Segura said. “So our district felt like, ‘We don’t have to,’ instead of thinking to themselves, ‘This is a good idea that we work collaboratively with our labor groups in order to make this transition back to in-person instruction as soon as possible.’”

But for the district, getting kids back in the classroom as soon as possible meant taking a step back from negotiating with the union.

“The focus of our work is not negotiations,” Ontiveros said. “It was really developing that plan for returning to in-person learning.”

Adam Elementary teacher Felix feels that the district’s communication has been “a lot of silence.”

“All they keep saying is that things are changing, whereas if your children are in a neighboring district and they have a plan ready to roll out, that doesn’t make sense,” Felix said. “I feel like we’re just always in the dark. It’s always a surprise what information we’re going to find out.”

Some neighboring districts opted to continue negotiations with their unions after it was no longer required by the state. Lompoc Federation of Teachers, the union that represents Lompoc Unified School District educators, reached a memorandum of understanding with the district regarding coronavirus response in early March. LUSD’s elementary students started returning to the classroom soon after on March 8. 

Orcutt Educators Association President and teacher Monique Segura said a previous memorandum of understanding with the Orcutt Union School District already sufficiently communicated what a return to in-person would look like, making major further negotiations unnecessary. (Monique and Jose Segura, the SMEEA president, are spouses.)

“In July, we actually came up with a plan that was a distance-learning plan, but it could easily translate and go into the, what we call, ‘blended learning plan,’” Monique said. “In theory, we were set as soon as we went face to face … We had it lined up to be smooth and go right into that.”

At a March 10 school board meeting, the Santa Maria-Bonita School District officially presented its plan for returning to in-person instruction, which Jose Segura said had not yet been shared with teachers. 

“That was the first time teachers across the district have heard of any of this,” he said. “They were just floored by it.”

A number of teachers spoke during public comment at the meeting, expressing frustration over a lack of communication around reopening plans. Two days later, the union submitted a demand-to-bargain letter to the district. Though the district is not required to negotiate the return plan with the union, Segura said, the union still reserves the right to “bargain the working conditions that that plan creates.”

The district responded quickly to the union’s request and agreed to bargain.

“It’s around the same issues, there’s just a little more foundation around it now that the legislation has been settled and the return to in-person instruction plan has been developed,” Ontiveros said. “The focus all along has been to develop the return to in-person instruction plan in compliance with the law.”

As of March 26, Segura said the union had been to the bargaining table twice with the district, with another meeting planned for later that day.

“We’re hopeful,” he said. “And we continue to be hopeful that we can produce a final product that is beneficial to our members, to the school district, and of course to our students.”

Staff Writer Malea Martin can be reached at mmartin@santamariasun.com.

Update: SMEEA and the district came to an agreement on March 30 for a return to in-person teaching, SMEEA President Jose Segura told the Sun. The agreement includes "important safeguards, like no eating in the classroom, acknowledgment of newly enacted SB 95/labor code 248.2, and provides financial incentives for members interested in attempled simultaneous instruction rather than requiring all teachers to do so," he said.










Weekly Poll
How did you survive the heat wave?

By staying indoors: This is why I have air conditioning.
I got out in nature (but stayed in the shade, of course).
I enjoyed the Santa Maria pool's first rec swim in more than a year.
I took advantage of the warm evenings and ate outdoors at a local restaurant.

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