Q&A: Superintendent Kirsten Vital and Alameda Education Association President Gray Harris

Q&A: Superintendent Kirsten Vital and Alameda Education Association President Gray Harris

Michele Ellson

Two weeks ago, we asked the community for their questions regarding negotiations over a new contract for Alameda's teachers. Today we publish responses from Superintendent Kirsten Vital and Alameda Education Association President Gray Harris.

Here’s a question for both sides: If you can’t come to an agreement on the teacher’s contract in the next 90 days, what will you do and what do you think the impact will be on the community and to the students in particular? I’d be interested in hearing what each side thinks will happen and what they believe the impact will be on the community.
Superintendent Kirsten Vital: The sooner that we can reach agreements with AEA in negotiations, the better it will be for students, for the community, for teachers and for all of us. Of course, the corollary of that is that the longer it takes and the greater the acrimony involved in resolving negotiations, the worse for students and for the community.

We are committed to recapturing the spirit of cooperation and positivity we all shared in the months leading up to the passage of Measure A. Accordingly, as we did in negotiating the tentative agreement signed by AEA leaders in March that was later rejected by AEA membership and as we are now doing in negotiations, we will continue to move forward positively and respectfully, always striving to compromise and reach agreement. In our communications with the public about these matters of public interest, the district is sticking to the facts and avoiding inflammatory rhetoric. We hope AEA will do the same.

We also remain committed to keeping these issues out of the classroom and away from students, as the AEA President and I agreed in an joint letter we signed last fall in which we explained: “Although AEA and the district may disagree on how to resolve the issues under negotiations, we can and do agree that this discussion has no place in the classroom or at our schools during instructional hours.”


AEA President Gray Harris: We will continue to negotiate in good faith and follow the legal processes, as we are required to do. Fact Finding (see below for definition) is scheduled for Friday May 25. The Fact Finding panel will hear both sides of the facts and will issue a recommendation around the last day of school, or possibly even after school ends. The district will decide how they plan to proceed in light of the recommendation.  
Fact Finding is limited to the MOU (see below for definition). AEA feels it is not a good use of time and effort to go to Fact Finding since it is on an agreement that ends in only a few weeks. The teachers have offered the district many solutions to resolve this by making three different proposals in negotiations, but the district has not responded to any of those ideas and has not significantly changed their original offer in any way for over a year. If the district decides to impose their increase in class size rather than negotiate it fairly, then the teachers may be forced to go on strike. The teachers feel that the focus should not be on the agreement that’s expiring, but on the negotiations that began in January for a new three-year contract. We hope that the district will shift their focus from imposing to negotiating so that we can settle a fair contract.


Fact Finding is like a mini-trial. There is no real finding of fact. There is a three-member panel that acts like a judge. We select one, the district selects one, and one is chosen by PERB. We present what we see as the facts, the district presents what they see as the facts, and the panel makes a recommendation.

The MOU is a temporary agreement we made in order to put off bargaining of a new three-year contract. When our contract was set to expire in 2009, we needed to pass a parcel tax so we put off bargaining by making this temporary agreement called the MOU. The MOU expires at the end of this school year and we revert to our old contract.

Measure A represented a significant tax increase to many households in Alameda yet passed thanks to the support of this community to its public schools. Are parties to these negotiations mindful of this fact, especially when making labor demands that will have a significant cost to AUSD?
AEA President Gray Harris: Measure A brought badly needed funding into our district, the teachers supported it fully, and approximately 50 percent of our teachers pay the Measure A tax. However, we were told by the superintendent "Now that Measure A passed, we will be decreasing class sizes back from 25 to 24 to 23 to 22 to 21 and back to 20." We were told that a large portion of the money would be used to "attract and retain teachers." We were told that furloughs would only be needed if the parcel tax did not pass. It passed and the district took the furlough days anyway thereby reducing teachers salaries by 4.5 percent or an average of approximately $3,000 last year. It seemed logical that the district would honor its promises both to teachers and the community; however, none of the promises have been kept.
In addition, we were assured that there would be a Measure A Oversight Committee made up of community members who would be involved in making decisions for the Measure A money. In fact, that committee has no power to make decisions. They were told at their first meeting that the committee is for oversight only, which means that they get to review decisions that have already been made, and not aid in actual decision making. 
Measure A provides a maximum for class size. The teachers’ contract provides what is best for students and teachers. A limit of 25 in Measure A does not prohibit the district from following our contract that says 20 students per class. If the district wants to change the maximum class size for K-3 to 25 students per class, they must negotiate and show why higher class size is better for kids when they can afford the smaller class size. Please see the chart below to compare Alameda’s unrestricted ending balance to all of Alameda County.

See chart one, linked below.
Similarly, with the passage of Measure A, the district did not have to take five days from each student’s education and did not have to take 4.5 percent from each teacher’s salary.
Measure A clearly stipulated that some of the money was to "attract and retain teachers." The teachers in Alameda are the second lowest paid teachers in Alameda County. Only Oakland is lower. Please see below for the salary comparison for teachers in Alameda County.

See chart two, linked below.

Superintendent Kirsten Vital: The district deeply appreciates the community’s support of our schools through Measure A as well as in all the other ways Alameda supports our students.

We are committed to heightened accountability and transparency about how we are using the critical local tax dollars our community has provided through Measure A to protect our core programs and core values. We are accounting publicly for every penny of Measure A funds.

At the board meeting on May 22, staff will be presenting an informational update on the implementation of Measure A in 2011-12.
Is setting a calendar year subject to negotiation, or required to be determined by a set date under state law or other rule/regulation? If the latter, can the parties agree to publish a calendar for the 12/13 school year now, letting families plan their summers accordingly?
Superintendent Kirsten Vital: We appreciate how difficult the uncertainty around the calendar for next school year is for students, families, staff and our many community partners. There is no state law requiring that the calendar be set by a certain date.

The calendar for the 2012-13 school year has been under negotiation with our teachers’ union since October of this school year. The parties have reached a substantive agreement on a calendar, but our teachers’ union has declined to formally approve it until additional items, unrelated to the 2012-13 calendar, have been agreed upon by the district and the union.

For more information on the calendar process, you may review our recent board presentation at: http://alamedapublic.novusagenda.com/BlueSheet.aspx?ItemID=436&MeetingID=20

We are continuing to work diligently to negotiate a 2012-2013 calendar to conclusion.

In the event we are unable to successfully conclude negotiations on the calendar, staff will ask the board to adopt the first three months of school as shown on this draft calendar: http://www.alameda.k12.ca.us/images/stories/pdfs/HR/ln/AUSD_Proposed_Calendar_2012-13.pdf

It is important to note that the district cannot legally set days that are staff only days, such as teacher work days and professional development days. These days will remain under negotiation with the union and the district.

AEA President Gray Harris: Calendar is a mandatory subject of bargaining and is included in the teachers’ contract. Three months ago the teachers gave the district a proposal for Article 8, teaching hours, which included two years of calendar. Article 8 is one small part of our contract which contains approximately 30 articles. Within Article 8 are many teaching hour related items and one of those items is the calendar. The district has continued to try to pick out the parts of our contract that they want to settle first (K-3 class size and calendar) and have shown no interest in talking about the parts of the contract that the teachers have been trying to address since last year.

Normally the whole contract (all articles) would be settled before anything would be implemented. Since we know the calendar is important to the community, we have offered to finish negotiating only Article 8 and then pull that article for implementation. The district refused this offer.

We would like to settle at least one article of our contract before summer since there are many other articles to discuss and we have been working on Article 8 since January. The teachers' bargaining team is very frustrated with the lack of progress and would like start making some forward motion towards settling the contract.  
See chart three, linked below.
The chart below shows that Article 8 includes issues such as lunch, faculty meetings, prep, extra duties, and the calendar. It does not include salary, benefits or anything other than issues related to teaching hours. Similarly, Article 9 includes class size for grades K-3, 4-5, 6-8, 9-12, music and PE. The district would like to simply pluck the issues they want out of the entire agreement and continue to refuse to talk about anything else. If we could simply settle the one article that includes calendar, the teachers are willing to implement it while we negotiate the rest of the contract. The district has repeatedly refused that offer.
I am deeply concerned that the negative rhetoric that has been on display in this dispute is undermining public support for our schools. In your contact with the public about this dispute, what sort of consideration do you give to the long term negative effects of your statements and actions? Have you considered that this immediate dispute is undermining community support for our schools and endangering future local school funding support? If not, why not? If so, what measures are you willing to take right now to restore public confidence? Would you agree to a mutual moratorium on all public statements about the dispute?

AEA President Gray Harris: Past practice was for contract negotiations to be closed to the public. It says in our contract, "All negotiation sessions shall be closed unless mutually agreed upon in advance by both parties." This district is no longer following this part of our agreement and is bargaining in public by sending e-mails to the community about negotiations, posting details about negotiations on the AUSD website, making public presentations at school board meetings, and encouraging the public to ask questions about negotiations. Other districts are not behaving in this manner and they have settled their contracts quickly. The teachers have asked the district privately and formally to stop bargaining in public but AUSD has refused. If the district is going to continue to share only their side of the story, the teachers are forced to share the other side. The teachers feel that an inordinate amount of time is being spent educating the public on the process of negotiating, when that time could be much better spent coming to an agreement that settles a fair contract.

Superintendent Kirsten Vital: As discussed above in response to question one, the sooner that we can reach agreements with AEA in negotiations, the better it will be for students, for the community, for teachers, and for all of us. The longer it takes and the greater the acrimony involved in resolving negotiations, the worse for students and for the community. We are committed to recapturing the spirit of cooperation and positivity we all shared in the months leading up to the passage of Measure A.

Despite where things stand with negotiations at the moment, great things are still happening every day in classrooms at every school across the district. We are hopeful that the traditional end of the year celebrations will remind us all how much we have to be thankful for.

With respect to negotiations, a complete moratorium on all communications is likely to be difficult given the significant public interest in this matter and the district’s commitment to transparency as one of our guiding principles. At the same time, we appreciate the concern this question raises and intend to stick to the facts and avoid inflammatory rhetoric. We hope AEA will do the same.
The AEA has argued that there are sufficient reserves to give its members a raise larger than the raise offered in the rejected tentative agreement. But the district's most recent financial statements show that the district's reserves will be spent down by the 2013-14 school year. (pdf page 17, Powerpoint page 14) At the AEA's parents' forum on May 1, a representative of the CTA called these financial statements "accounting trickery" and said that the discrepancy could be easily explained but did not provide details. So how can we be assured that the district's projections are sound and what, specifically, does the AEA contend is wrong with the district's projections? How does the unpredictable state funding factor into the analysis?

Superintendent Kirsten Vital: AUSD submits its state-mandated budget reports to the state and county under penalty of perjury.

The governor’s recent “May Revise” budget indicates that the state budget deficit is now much larger than what the governor had suggested in January when he first proposed a budget for the coming school year. Staff will be analyzing the complexities of the governor’s May Revise budget and reporting to the board and the community on how, specifically, the new budget proposal will affect the district. Even though the details are not yet clear, there is no doubt about the big picture: We are facing many millions of dollars in state cuts to K-12 education if the proposed state tax initiatives don’t pass in November. Accordingly, we must be fiscally conservative.

AEA President Gray Harris: First it is important to repeat that the tentative agreement was not rejected because of the money. It was rejected because of all the other demands made by the district. The district can easily show on paper that they will spend down the reserves without actually doing it. For example, if the district budgets $7 million for classified salaries, when classified salaries have never cost more than $5 million for the last several years, most likely there will be $2 million left over from this line item at the end of the school year. Another example is the district budgeting for the worst possible case scenario for state cuts that never come to fruition. Before December, the district had budgeted for a $300+ cut per student. When the actual cut was only $13 per student, that money was not reallocated to another area of the budget so it is likely to appear in the ending balance this year. See below for the projected ending balances compared to actual ending balances for the last several years. 

See chart four, linked below.

If the contract issues are resolved, what steps can the union and the district take to rebuild the good will that seems to have been lost?

AEA President Gray Harris: The contract is only one part of the grave concerns that teachers have about the direction our district is heading. Settling the contract would be a huge step toward resolving issues, but there are others that would still need resolution. For example, the district's recent release of confidential personnel documents to the public, the bad evaluations that were recently given to some of our most trusted, valued colleagues who have never before had a negative review, the fact that there is such a dramatic increase in contract violations and negative reviews in the last few years, the increasingly litigious attitude the district has toward teachers, and the fact that the only professional development that is offered is tied directly to the superintendent's performance pay. Settling the contract would be a step toward showing AUSD has a willingness to settle issues that matter to teachers.
Superintendent Kirsten Vital: As discussed in the response to question four above, despite where things stand with negotiations at the moment, great things are still happening every day in classrooms at every school across the district. Both before and after contract issues are resolved, we hope all will keep in mind how much we have to be thankful for.

Building goodwill is something that necessarily takes time and tends to happen as a result of many small actions over time. We will continue the community outreach and community efforts of the past few years. We will continue to share news of our successes and our challenges. As long as we all continue to do our very best in the difficult circumstances under which we must operate, we expect good will to build with our teachers, with all of our employees, and with the broader community.

The AEA has criticized the district for having an in-house general counsel. What does the general counsel do and would it be cheaper to have outside counsel do the work instead of having full time counsel employed by the district?

Superintendent Kirsten Vital: Responsible for the expenditure of public school funds, AUSD must be the trustees of children’s money. Like AEA, we believe that public school funds must be spent on our students in a way to maximize our limited resources. This value is central to the district’s mission and has been the genesis of several recent initiatives including site-based budgeting, streamlining the district office, and hiring a general counsel.

When we hired a general counsel, we were in the midst of two very controversial issues both of which were either in or headed to litigation: Lesson 9 and our parcel tax lawsuit. In addition, the previous year (2008/09) had seen costs for outside counsel in excess of $476,000.

Since we hired an in-house lawyer, we have seen an overall decrease in legal costs, even taking into account our general counsel’s salary. Legal costs always vary from year to year, but in the last two years, we have decreased our overall legal costs by $391,923.10. Part of this reduction in cost is the result of providing staff with access to legal advice without incurring a charge of $285 per hour for outside counsel.

When matters are referred to outside counsel, we now have better oversight of these costs and we have been able to contain them within reasonable amounts. In addition, in the past year, the district has been negotiating successor contracts with all three employee bargaining units. In the past, an outside lawyer sat at the bargaining table with AEA and an outside lawyer was responsible for all the legal work associated with negotiations. We have achieved a significant savings by having much of this work handled in-house.

AEA President Gray Harris: We are the only district of our size that we are able to find in all of California that has a full-time district attorney. She is the second-highest paid employee in the district and the position was originally justified by projecting a reduction in legal costs. However, the teachers have struggled to see the benefit of the general counsel. In addition to paying the general counsel an almost $200,000 salary with a built-in 3 percent annual raise, the district is also paying an assistant to the attorney who makes approximately a teacher’s salary. It does not seem that the general counsel has curbed legal costs since this district pays additional attorneys to represent them in mediations, arbitrations, layoff hearings, Fact Findings, and to respond to unfair labor practice charges. In addition, teachers feel that this district has become increasingly litigious and confrontational against teachers in the years since hiring a general counsel.
What percentage of teachers voted on the tentative agreement? What efforts are being made to ensure that more teachers participate in the vote?

AEA President Gray Harris: Over half of the approximately 500 teachers voted "no" on the contract. Therefore, an increase in voting members would not have changed the result of the vote. As we always do in contract ratification voting, we provide multiple opportunities for teachers to vote in person. Normally teachers can vote on two days; one day at the general meeting and one day at the AEA office. For this vote we provided three days to vote; one day at the general meeting and two days at the office where we extended office hours on both days to allow voting before school, after school, and during the school day. Because of this, we had a very high turnout for contract ratification.
It seems like both sides were well-represented during negotiations that resulted in a mutually agreed upon tentative agreement that was ultimately voted down by the teachers. What efforts are being made to ensure that teachers demands are being heard during negotiations moving forward?

Superintendent Kirsten Vital: We will continue to move forward positively and respectfully in negotiations, always striving to compromise and reach agreement. We believe there are some encouraging signs of progress on some issues in negotiations.

For the successor negotiations underway, we have changed our negotiating team. We have negotiating team members with many combined years of classroom teaching experience in our district.

We are always open to ideas for how to make negotiations more productive and have been discussing this issue with AEA at the bargaining table.

What is the process by which the AEA negotiating team collects teacher input? How can we ensure the next tentative agreement is approved by teachers? 

AEA President Gray Harris: We have member meetings, site meetings, site representative meetings, we conduct on-line surveys, and our AEA office receives approximately 100 e-mails per day from individual teachers sharing their thoughts. We know what our teachers want and normally we are able to get feedback from them as negotiations progress. However, the recent tentative agreement was created during confidential mediation where the members could not be consulted. The district brought forth demands that the members had never seen until the agreement was reached, and therefore there was no way to solicit input on teachers' feelings about those items until the vote. When the teachers saw the agreement, they decided the temporary compensation offer was not enough to warrant the length of the district's demands.
What is your understanding of why the number of grievances has been greater in the past few years than in preceding years? What can the district do to reduce the resources that are being directed to addressing the grievances?

Superintendent Kirsten Vital: Each grievance must be evaluated on the particular facts and circumstances at issue in each specific case. We know that the misconduct described in some of the grievances relating to discipline is not at all reflective of the vast majority of our highly competent, thoughtful and valuable teachers. We believe our parents and community know this as well.

Our expectation is that all complaints and grievances would be resolved at the lowest possible level. We have not ordered any change in practice in this regard.

In response to three separate requests under the public records act, as required by law we did send redacted copies of the grievances to those making such requests.

While we see the benefits of smaller class sizes, what trade-offs would teachers be willing to make to achieve 20:1?    

AEA President Gray Harris: The teachers had originally asked to maintain status quo. Small classes are better for kids. The district refused this offer.
When the TA was rejected several weeks ago, there was much discussion of it the local blogosphere. Please for this discussion, state clearly each negative concession that made the TA untenable and why. Please state what changes must be made to the TA to make it palatable.

AEA President Gray Harris:I’d like to present four reasons that led to this outcome. 
First is the issue of collaboration. Students would have lost 45 minutes of instructional time per week. Some grade levels did not have 45 minutes beyond the state requirements, so those students would have lost recess time. Also, the collaboration schedule would have required parents to either pick up their students 45 minutes earlier or arrive 45 minutes later.  
Second are the issues of academic freedom, complaints, and calendar, which were all governed by past practice until Superintendent Vital arrived in Alameda. In the years since she was hired by the school board, our contract has been reinterpreted, and misinterpreted with a disregard of past practice. This has lead to over 43 grievances during Vital's reign compared to six during the three previous years combined.  

Third is the issue of salary. Teachers gave up 4.5 percent (an average of $3,000) of salary and there was no reimbursement for any of that lost pay. Teachers did the same work last year in less time with a pay cut.
While the TA provides a onetime payment, equal to 1 percent of teacher’s salary and 1.5 percent next year (1 percent is roughly $600 for an Alameda teacher), neither amount affects ongoing salary and does nothing to change the fact that Alameda's teachers are nearly the lowest paid in the county. 
The school board voted to increase the compensation to the superintendent and her executive cabinet last August. Superintendent Vital's four-year contract is worth approximately $1 million, which is roughly the same value as a 3 percent payment to all teachers. The teachers don’t see the equity in this and they don't see the fairness in teachers’ salaries being tied directly to state funding while the AUSD executive cabinets’ are not. Healthcare costs increased by approximately 12 percent this year and a teacher pays approximately $1,000/month out of pocket for a family insurance plan. The superintendent pays nothing for health insurance.
Fourth is the issue of class size. Small class size is better for students. The District says that 20:1 in K-3 costs only $500,000 more than 25:1. Last year's unrestricted ending balance of $17.5 million could have paid for 20:1 for the next 34 years. See the chart below for AUSD’s unrestricted ending balances over time.

See chart five, below.
Teachers are not interested in revising a rejected TA. We are interested in settling a three-year contract so that our focus can be on educating your children.
I have heard a number of teachers say that they now regret supporting Measure A. Does Ms. Harris share that point of view?  Why or why not? If the AEA contends the measure isn't paying for what Measure A mandates, what proof does the AEA have?

AEA President Gray Harris: I do not regret supporting Measure A. It brought badly needed funding into our district. However, when we were told by the superintendent, "Now that Measure A passed, we will be decreasing class sizes back from 25 to 24 to 23 to 22 to 21 and back to 20," and we were told that a large portion of the money will be to "attract and retain teachers," it seems logical that we would expect to see one of those things happening and neither are happening. Also, teachers feel that we should not have been furloughed after Measure A passed. Furloughs were only to occur if we did not pass a parcel tax. Those furloughs were 4.5 percent of a teacher's salary and we have not recouped that loss. Those furloughs were five days of instructional time for students, and the students will never recoup that loss. In addition, we were assured that there would be a Measure A Oversight Committee made up of community members who would be involved in making decisions for the Measure A money. That committee has no power to make decisions. They were told at their first meeting that they are oversight only, which means that they only get to review decisions that have already been made. They do not assist in making any decisions.


Submitted by dave on Mon, May 21, 2012

Harris repeats a false claim about furloughs more than once.

Measure A passed in the Spring of '11, first tax payments were collected in the fall of '11, ie early in the '11-12 school year. There were furlough days in the '10-11 year, but in the first year after passage, the '11-12 year, the furlough days were restored. That means the the 4.5% pay cut was restored.

There were NO furloughs after its passage, and it is incontrovertible that said passage is the reason the furloughs were restored.

Submitted by Sylvia Gibson on Mon, May 21, 2012

Thanks for great reporting!

This kind of open and calm communication seems to be making way for an accord.

Let's focus on the big picture. We have good schools and teachers are the driving force of performance in AUSD. Thanks to the community support that passed measure A, our schools continue to be fairly well funded. Let's honor teachers with a raise that is not linked to demeaning changes in their contract.

Submitted by bookworm55 on Mon, May 21, 2012

Superintendent Vital stated that it was the district's intention to stick to the facts when posting information about negotiations. The comment, "stick to the facts," reminded me of a past superintendent we had who told a group of us parents- "If you want to know something come to me. It may not be the truth, but it will be the facts." Superintendent Vital and the general counsel appear to be a 2 person PR machine, spinning "facts" out of who knows what.