School board, workers reach tentative labor agreement

Michelle Kim/Staff

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At a Wednesday meeting, the Berkeley Unified School District and representatives from the Berkeley Council of Classified Employees ended more than three years of negotiations with a tentative agreement that establishes the basis for future pay and benefit increases of certain Berkeley employees.

The school district and the BCCE — which represents roughly 600 of the school district’s employees — tentatively agreed to a 2.5-percent salary increase for classified workers, retroactive to July 2013, and an additional 2-percent increase, retroactive to July 2014. Classified employees would also receive an increase in funding from the school district for employee health plans equivalent to a 0.5-percent salary raise, amounting to approximately $60 per week, according to school district spokesperson Mark Coplan.

At the meeting, both sides expressed their satisfaction with finalizing the contract, which received unanimous approval from the school district’s board of education.

“I am really grateful that we reached a compromise,” said Judy Appel, a member of the school board, at the meeting. “I was really saddened and concerned that we didn’t have a contract and our employees weren’t benefiting, but now they will, and I appreciate the many hours of hard work.”

According to the contract, the district agrees to follow suggestions from a previously commissioned report to alter employee salaries based on comparisons to similar districts. Even if the report finds that employees are paid above the market average, however, the district does not tend to reduce any current salaries.

Additionally, the contract defined employee transfers and addressed concerns related to involuntary transfers, which BCCE tried to limit in previous negotiations.

At the meeting, BCCE President Paula Phillips acknowledged the hard work that went into the agreement but said she was “disappointed” with the school district’s lack of discussion and clarity surrounding certain stipulations of the contract, including a vacation payout clause and the purpose of a management team.

The school district and BCCE had been in negotiations since 2011. When an agreement failed to materialize after a meeting in July, the two groups went before a fact-finding panel.

In prior negotiations, BCCE’s goals were the expansion of qualifications for health benefits and limited involuntary transfers. The district sought an appropriate way to increase worker salaries and benefits within a limited budget.

For a time after the 2008 financial recession, the board had scarcely enough resources to support union negotiations at all, according to Coplan.

Had an agreement not been reached, the district would have had a right to propose a final offer, and the union would have had the right to strike.

“It was a long road … but I think at the end it’s clear that we have the shared goal of giving kids the best education possible,” said Karen Hemphill, a board member, at the meeting.

Once a tentative agreement is reached between the classified employees and the school district, the contract must be ratified in a vote by the workers.

Contact Alex Barreira at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @abarreira_dc.