Teachers Protest ‘Unfair’ Health Plan, School Calendar Change

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Certificated employees chat outside the Newport-Mesa Unified School District headquarters on Monday during a protest of ongoing labor negotiations.
— Photo by Daniel Langhorne ©

About 100 teachers, school nurses, school psychologists, and other certificated employees of the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers protested Monday to challenge the school district’s handling of their health insurance plan and senior staffers’ push for a collegiate academic calendar.

Wearing blue t-shirts emblazoned with the Statue of Liberty holding a pencil above her head, the union members chanted outside the Newport-Mesa Unified School District’s headquarters in Costa Mesa. California Federation of Teachers President Jeff Freitas shouted into a bullhorn to fire up fellow educators before the NMUSD Board of Education meeting.

“What do we want?” Freitas said.

“A fair contract,” the union members responded.

“When do we want it?”

“Now!”

Freitas added that the 85,000-member state teachers union supports NMFT members in their beleaguered negotiations with the district leadership. Considering how prone children are to carry germs into the classroom, Freitas said it’s only fair that the District make the full healthcare investment its already agreed to.

“We have dedicated our working lives to support the students of this community,” Freitas said. “We are making sure they have a safe and supportive environment to learn, so why aren’t the school board worried about our safe environment to be able to provide an education for them.”

NMFT President Britt Dowdy said he and his fellow members were disappointed to learn the District stopped contractually-required contributions to the healthcare plan for employees who decline health benefits, a practice that had been around since at least 2001. Even though those employees aren’t taking advantage of the benefit, the District is still supposed to count them when making health insurance payments.

The District’s attorneys disagree with the union on how to interpret the contract.

Last October, NMFT filed an unfair practice charge with the Public Employee Relations Board that the Newport-Mesa Unified School District violated state law by failing to fund employees’ 2017-18 health benefits as required by an approved agreement.

“Specifically, the union learned that the District stopped depositing an amount equal to the negotiated cap for all employees,” the union’s complaint states. “The District also did not deposit any amount for those employees who had chosen not to participate in the District health plan.”

Britt Dowdy, president of the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers, speaks to union members before the Board of Education meeting on Monday.
— Photo by Daniel Langhorne ©

According to public documents, the district spent about $36.3 million on NMFT’s health benefits in 2017-18. Dowdy claims the District shortchanged employees by about $506,000 by making required contributions for employees who declined benefits.

“I think the taxpayers need to know the people who work closest with their children … are not being given equal treatment for their health and welfare benefits plan compared to the superintendent, management employees, and hard-working support staff,” Dowdy said.

Notably, the Board of Education approved the 2019-20 agreement with the Classified School Employees Association, which represents the District’s support staffers, for a 3.5 percent salary increase and raise the district’s contribution for health and welfare benefits to $20,441.

The District and the Newport-Mesa Federation of Teachers have met for 15 negotiation sessions since March, NMUSD Public Relations Officer Annette Franco explained in an email. Both parties have presented proposals, including those related to health and welfare benefits, she added.

“We are hopeful in our ability to come to a resolution on this matter and continue to provide exceptional benefits to our employees,” Franco said.

Teacher and parents also criticized how the District unfurled its proposal to change the academic calendar to one that includes a 79-day fall semester and 101-day spring semester.

In 2017, the District started a roadshow of public meetings to discuss the calendar. The current proposal for next year is to start classes two weeks earlier, which actually puts the first day of school a week after Labor Day 2020. A district-sponsored survey showed the top concern about an earlier start date was the many classrooms lacked air-conditioning.

Superintendent Fred Navarro recently announced that, as of this summer, all K-8 school sites have heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems. Among the remaining facilities still waiting for HVAC installation are three rooms at Corona del Mar High School and two buildings at Newport Harbor High School. Those projects will be completed next summer.

Newport Harbor High English teacher Matt Armstrong was among the 20 teachers who spoke Monday to a packed audience wearing blue shirts.

“For me, any initiative that requires such a comprehensive, long-term propaganda campaign needs to be considered suspect,” Armstrong said. “As a professional educator, I’ve dedicated my life’s work to youth development. I’ll lead the kids in my classroom whenever they’re there, whatever month it is, but in this case, I truly believe the community’s will is not to start early.”

Mariners Elementary kindergarten teacher Cara Boyd also took her opportunity to scold the board for making the public wait three and a half hours to speak on non-agenda matters like the contract negotiations.

“Moving public comments to the end of our meetings, I think we’re better than that,” Boyd said. “It’s our role as public servants to be inclusive to the community and we want to do that by being respectful of people’s time.

Boyd added that it’s unprecedented in the district to make a change as big as moving to a collegiate calendar that’s not supported by data.

School board member Michelle Barto said Newport-Mesa Unified is essentially being pushed toward adopting a collegiate calendar because other school districts and sports leagues have already made the change.

“We kind of have to face what everyone has done,” she said. “I don’t know that it serves you to be the only one that’s left.

Barto thanked teachers for coming directly from parent conferences and sacrifice their entire evening at the school board meeting.

“I’ve got young kids and I have a job so I understand what it’s like,” she said. “To me, it’s important that they’re standing up for their issues because that’s how the work of community government gets done.”

A hearing on the NMFT grievance is scheduled for Nov. 18–22 at the Public Employee Relations Board Los Angeles Regional Office, an agency staffer said.

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