The Public Eye

Natomas district, teachers union air dirty laundry in public feud

Contract negotiations between Natomas Unified School District officials and teachers have dissolved into public finger-pointing and hostility.

On Feb. 2, the Natomas Teachers Association submitted a proposal to the district that, as written, would prevent its members from being fired and limit suspensions to 15 days with pay.

The district posted the proposal in a “Negotiations Update” on its website and emailed it to parents and teachers Feb. 4, alleging it would protect teachers who have sex with students, bring guns on campus or commit other crimes.

That missive came after an Inderkum High School teacher was charged last fall with having oral sex with two students.

The teachers union fired back this week with a news release that called the allegations an “outrageous misrepresentation” of its proposal and accused Superintendent Chris Evans and the school board of breaking faith with its teachers.

The animosity between district leaders and its teachers peaked at Wednesday night’s school board meeting, when dozens of teachers filled the boardroom in protest.

“Anybody that does exhibit those kind of behaviors in our schools is subject to the legal system, the Education Code and the laws of the state,” said Michael Turner, a teacher. “No legal mumbo-jumbo that we could put in a teachers’ contract is going to protect them from that. To say we are putting this language in to protect child-molesters, teachers that are dealing drugs on campus is insane.”

On Tuesday, Natomas Unified spokesman Jim Sanders said the district regularly puts updates on contract negotiations on its website. He defended the examples used by the district.

“Anytime there is language that broad, what you take a look at is what it could mean,” Sanders said. “You aren’t just talking about spitting gum on a sidewalk. You’re looking at what it actually could mean.”

Teachers are also asking for a raise for the 2016-17 school year, although it’s not clear how much. The NTA website says teachers are asking for an 8 percent raise, while school district officials say the request is for 12 percent. A chart on the NTA website of union proposals and reported responses from the district is inaccurate, according to Sanders.

He would not to elaborate, saying the chart “is another example of the misinformation from NTA leadership.”

Parents who spoke at Wednesday’s board meeting said they were unhappy with both sides.

Parent Elena Quintero said she was disappointed with the information sent out by the district but was even more disappointed by the lack of answers she received from the union when she asked them to clarify their language. “It was very broad, not specific,” she said later. “I think they were wanting to start a fight.”

Parent Meredith Smith said she agrees that the union proposal’s language is overly broad but said the district’s Feb. 4 update was an unfair interpretation of the facts.

“May I gently remind the NTA and NUSD that this community employs you and allows you to hold public office,” Smith said. “In case there is any misunderstanding, we will not tolerate political shenanigans for the expressed purpose of manipulating public sentiment.”

School board members are legally prohibited from addressing items not on the agenda and didn’t comment on the issue at the board meeting.

The union proposal, under the heading “Professional rights, academic freedom and complaint procedures,” said discipline would have to be meted out in four progressive steps culminating in paid suspension for the fourth offense, according to a copy obtained from the school district.

The union proposal also asked for immunity from negative evaluations, assignments or discipline based on complaints unless the teacher is advised in writing within 10 days and can, at their discretion, meet with the person lodging the complaint.

Cox said the proposal was meant to establish a progressive system of discipline for teachers, similar to one the district uses for students. The district posted its Feb. 4 statement “without asking us for clarification” of our intent, Cox said. The language in the contract proposal was meant to be a starting point for negotiations, he said.

California’s Education Code allows teachers to be dismissed for an array of causes, including immoral or unprofessional conduct; unsatisfactory performance; conviction of a felony or any crime involving moral turpitude; alcohol or drug abuse that makes the employee unfit to instruct children; and dishonesty.

Sacramento County schools chief David Gordon said the district cannot agree to language that conflicts with state law. “I don’t get the argument,” he said Thursday. “Why would people put it in a contract if it’s contrary to state law?”

Sanders said four teachers have been terminated from Natomas Unified School District in the last four years.

Union officials have demanded that the district remove the bargaining update from its website and said they will consider legal action that could include filing charges of bad-faith bargaining and unfair labor practices, according to the news release.

The district responded on Feb. 8 with another update, accusing the union of delay tactics designed to prevent the parties from reaching an agreement. The update included a copy of the union proposal.

“Their proposal is not in a foreign language,” Sanders said. “We released it so they can read it. Let people read it for themselves and form their own conclusion.”

The rift between the district and the union seems to go beyond the debate over the proposal on discipline. On Tuesday, Natomas Unified filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the state Public Employment Relations Board against the union. The charges filed by the district portray a contract negotiation rife with dissension and delays.

On Friday, the teachers union announced it had requested a mediator to facilitate future meetings, filed a cease-and-desist order against the school district and would be filing an unfair labor charge, according to a news release.

“We value our teachers and appreciate what they do every day, and this proposal was written by a very small number of people on their negotiating team and is something we can’t accept,” Sanders said. “We don’t think it’s good for kids, and we don’t think the community can accept it either.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated from print and online versions at 10:35 a.m. Feb. 14, 2016, to correctly attribute a quote to Michael Turner, a teacher, and to put the sentences in the quote in the correct chronological order. At 1:55 p.m., it was updated to correct the entity to which the school district filed its unfair labor practices complaint.

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert