Students returned to Cabrillo Unified School District campuses on Tuesday after the holiday break, but for teachers the big red circle on the calendar might be this Friday. That is the day district officials and representatives of the teachers union attempt to negotiate a new contract.

If they are successful, it would be the first signed contract between the parties since the 2016-17 school year. Since then, teachers have been working under provisions of the old contract having walked away from the offer presented last year.

Half Moon Bay High School art teacher and Cabrillo Unified Teachers Association lead bargainer Sean Riordan is hopeful for a different outcome this time around, and he’s upbeat about relations with his employer.

He notes that Coastside voters clearly voiced their support for local teachers when three-fourths of them voted for Measure I, the $150 per parcel tax, to prop up local schools at a time of dire financial distress. The ballot measure expressly noted that the money was needed to, among other things, “retain qualified teachers.”

That has been difficult on the coast, where teacher compensation has languished in comparison to districts over the hill. The teachers union maintains that only one of the 31 school districts in San Mateo County offer less than the $50,000 starting salary for teachers and only four pay less at the high end of the salary curve. Consequently, young teachers often use Cabrillo as a training ground before moving on to more lucrative jobs elsewhere in the Bay Area. By way of example, Riordan says the entire high school counseling staff turned over this school year and that there are six new teachers on staff.

“Clearly, the language in the parcel tax was meant to retain and attract highly trained teachers,” Riordan said. “We need to put pressure on board members to follow the will of the voters.”

Negotiations begin amid difficult financial straits within the district. Though the parcel tax will provide $1.6 million a year to district coffers for the next eight years, Cabrillo still had to cut hundreds of thousands of dollars to avoid insolvency and an outside takeover of funding decisions.

Cabrillo Unified Superintendent Sean McPhetridge heads into the negotiations with a wary eye on current and future finances. The parcel tax is only one part of the funding equation and other revenue streams are lagging. He said state analysts are predicting a lower cost of living adjustment than in years past, and notes that pension payments will rise under the Public Education Pension Reform Act. And that is not all: Special education costs are rising as well. 

Meanwhile, demographic trends indicate there may be fewer Cabrillo students in the future and that would mean corresponding decreases in state revenues.

“The parcel tax is not enough. The state funding is not enough. The federal education budget is not enough to provide the raises we want to give to all of our employees,” McPhetridge said. “I think educators across the board are underpaid and undervalued in this society.

“The sad truth is that doesn’t help us with the fact that the state is 42nd in the country in education funding,” he said.

School funding mechanisms in California are notoriously difficult to understand, and district officials won’t know for sure what the state will contribute to local coffers until Gov. Gavin Newsom makes his budget available later this month. And even then the numbers could change until it’s finalized later this year. McPhetridge said the only way to ensure there is money for staff and faculty raises is to increase the parcel tax and with it local funding.

Riordan says he fully expects a positive negotiation atmosphere. He notes that all five school board members — the people who will make the ultimate decision after a staff negotiation — have children who are currently enrolled in the district or once were.

“I understand they are deeply invested in the district,” he said. “Although we don’t always agree, we work collaboratively.” 

Correction: This version corrects the date when negotiations were expected to begin. They are set for Friday, Jan. 10.

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