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Bonsall teachers battle district

 

Last updated 4/14/2006 at Noon



It’s always about the money. That’s the sticking point in negotiations between the teachers’ union and Bonsall Union School District. Specifically, two issues dominate talks: a salary increase and a benefit cap.

“What we’re asking for is not out of line,” says union negotiation chairperson Jim Hutcherson, a teacher at Sullivan Middle School and a 20-year vet of Fallbrook schools who will retire in three to five years. By asking for a 5.5-percent pay increase, the union claims they merely want parity with their peers. Hutcherson says the Bonsall district is at the bottom of the pay scale, ranking 37 out of 39 county districts; however, Jef Schleiger, the Superintendent of the Bonsall Union School District, points out Bonsall Union School District compares not with all 39 districts but with Alpine Union, Borrego Springs Unified, Cardiff, Jamul-Dulzura, Mountain Empire, and San Pasqual Union, whose sizes are similar. Hutcherson admits even though their union members accept the similarities, there is a $4,000 to $5,000 difference in pay scale. But, Schleiger claims, “they still never consider the $3,969 cafeteria plan money as salary. That is very close to the $4,000 to $5,000 needed to bring them up.” The “cafeteria plan” Schleiger refers to is a cash portion of the benefits package teachers now receive. But since the benefit value doesn’t show up on their salary schedule. says Schleiger, they don’t consider it money.

Offering employees a cafeteria plan option for benefits may have advantages because it enables them to choose between cash salary and a variety of nontaxable qualified benefits, says the IRS. “Employer contributions to the cafeteria plan are usually made pursuant to salary reduction agreements between the employer and the employee in which the employee agrees to contribute a portion of [salary] on a pre-tax basis to pay for the qualified benefits.” At Bonsall the qualified benefits are: medical, dental, vision, life and income protection.

Historically, the teachers have been interested in maintaining benefits to the highest level available, says Schleiger. So, that is where the district has been putting its money. The “highest level” means two things: least cost to the teachers and the quality of benefits themselves, which total $8,116 per teacher. The cost of benefits and who pays for them is part of the negotiation. At present, teachers who claim no dependents, or one dependent, pay nothing for their benefits. Approximately nine employees have more than one dependent and must contribute some money of their own for those benefits. About half the teachers are single and have benefits for a single person deducted, but the difference is theirs and appears as cash in their paycheck. All teachers can receive either cash or an amount to cover “employee plus one dependent” in cash on their paychecks.

Across the state, school districts vary widely in benefits cost even though salaries are similar. In larger districts such as Torrance, in Los Angeles County, where the average salary is $52,722 compared to Bonsall’s average of $49,053, the benefit cap is $5,200 with no cafeteria plan, compared to the Bonsall board’s suggested $6,000 cap with cafeteria plan. In the Jamul-Dulzura District in San Diego County, the average salary is $53,785 with a $4,240 benefit or cafeteria plan option across the board. In San Pasqual with a $48,571 average salary, their benefit or cafeteria plan option is $7,700. The Pioneer District in Kings County in Northern California, also similar in size to the Bonsall District, records an average salary of $52,822, but their benefits or cafeteria plan option is $9,304. The California Department of Education reports the average salary for teachers in 2004-2005 was $57,498. Still, it seems there is reasonable parity in most districts when both salaries and benefits are combined. Bonsall’s highest salary is $68,663. “There are a lot of people at the high end...” says Schleiger.

The teachers are now telling the district they want their salaries to be as high as possible to ensure retirement advantages because top level retirement benefits are based on salary alone. Further, the district employs several teachers nearing retirement age, such as Hutcherson. Benefits costs are getting out of control, says the district board, and they must be curtailed. In their offer to the union, the board set a cap of $6,000 on benefits but allocated the $2,116 difference, or four percent, back to the employees as salary. While 47 teachers who claim benefits for themselves only will still get a portion in cash, those teachers with dependents must now pay some, or more, costs. This satisfies the teachers requirement for retirement at a higher salary and the board’s direction to reduce benefit costs, Schleiger says.

With this change of priorities, the district added a 1.1-percent increase overall, making the total increase 5.5 percent — precisely what the union is asking for. The district’s objective now is to achieve the average of the six San Diego County districts with which they compare. Both sides hope to resolve their negotiations during the next two weeks.

There are approximately 100 teachers employed by the Bonsall Union School District and 111 classified employees whose job descriptions include administrative assistants, cafeteria and maintenance workers and various types of special education aides, to name just a few.

Spending on Education

California ranked #1 in the US in public elementary-secondary school system spending during 2003-2004. Of the $50 million spent, $20 million went to teacher salaries and $5 million to teacher benefits. Per-student spending was $7,748.

Source: http://www.census.gov/govs/www/school04.html, “Public Education Finances” report, US Department of the Census, released March 2006.

 

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