Teachers’ union leader vows ‘class sizes can be kept small’

By Patric Hedlund

“This year, we can give back,” the president of the El Tejon Teacher’s Association (ETTA) said with a hint of excitement in his voice. I had just asked him how class sizes can be kept fairly small at Frazier Mountain High School, Frazier Park School and El Tejon School this year despite budget problems at the El Tejon Unified School District (ETUSD).

A total of 5.5 teaching positions had been cut for the 2014-2015 school year to make the draft budget balance, ETUSD Superintendent Rod Wallace said. At the July 31 board meeting, a half-time art teacher was restored to the high school’s staff by the trustees, but the proposed rehiring of four teachers for other schools was tabled, pending further negotiations with the union.

During a break in the public board meeting, I asked Chuck Mullen, the union president, for an interview. He is a middle school teacher and basketball coach who leaped up to the 15-foot long whiteboard in the classroom where we talked. Mullen laughed when he saw there were no markers in the tray, then strode back and forth, drawing a 15-foot long imaginary graph with his hand—which I could see perfectly.

Mullen’s graph depicted what he believes Proposition 30 funding will mean for school budgets that were starved during the statewide recession and are now slowly starting to recover.

Prop. 30 was approved by California voters in 2012 as temporary taxes to fund education and public safety.

Mullen drew an imaginary line that showed rapidly increasing school revenues in 2016 through 2019. He said Prop. 30 will help ETUSD catch up with its budget problems and then pay teachers back for not seeking increases right now, even taking reductions in stipends this year.

“Teachers also have to remember that this district is not 1,400 students anymore; it is closer to 730,” he said.

“But administration has to give too,” Mullen added, suggesting that administrative staffing needs to stay thin and noting that ETUSD’s Fund 20 “is a million dollar ‘slush fund’ that we can tap into to help bring those teachers back this year.”

Fund 20’s full name is “Special Reserve Fund for Post-Employment Benefits.”

An advisory opinion sent from the Kern County Superintendent of Schools to ETUSD Superintendent Wallace Tuesday, Aug. 5, said that Fund 20 holds money which has been set aside, but “not contributed irrevocably to a separate trust…. It functions effectively as an extension of the general fund.”

That means that Fund 20 money—which has averaged over $1 million each year even through the darkest days of the recession—is fungible; it can be used for other purposes. The district does have a restricted “Retiree Benefit Fund” (Fund 71) that is exclusively reserved for retired teachers’ benefits.

Mullen’s bottom line was simple: “We need to start spending like a smaller school.” In an interview Wednesday, Aug. 6 he said that the union was close to an agreement with the superintendent.

“We may also take two furlough days, so all school employees lose two days of pay. We will have to be sensitive to a lot of factors, but ‘Work Together’ [the union’s slogan during struggles with the prior superintendent and subsequent board elections] does not mean being at war with the administration.”

At the end of the Prop. 30 sequence after 2017, Mullen projects, “We will get $2,000 more per student; that will help balance this out.”

Mullen cautioned however that as compatible as his dealings with Wallace have been, “Once we shake hands on an agreement, we both still have to go get it blessed from our constituents.”
Superintendent Wallace needs to receive approving votes from the trustees, and the union needs to receive agreement from its members.

Superintendent’s contract extended to June 2016

Trustees voted July 31 to extend the contract for Superintendent Rodney Wallace to June 2016. This move adds stability to the process ahead as this rural school district regains its morale and sense of teamwork after both suffered a stormy beating 2009-2013.

Candidates apply for interim trustee position

Four excellent candidates applied to fill the open seat on the board of trustees left by Scott Robinson’s resignation.

Candidates Stephen Berry, Sr. of Frazier Park, Sabrina Rouser of Pine Mountain, Misty Johnston of Lebec and Barbara Newbold of Pineridge gave inspiring answers to the interview questions asked by trustees regarding their priorities and perceptions of the relationship between the schools and the community.

Barbara Newbold was selected and took the oath of office. ETUSD Board Chair Vickie Mullen invited all candidates to run for the two positions that will be on the ballot in November.

State Park’s acquisition of Arciero land

(l-r) Hungry Valley Environmental Officer Chris Hon, Chair of California’s OHMVR Commission Paul Slavik and OHMVR Planning Manager Dan Canfield spoke with ETUSD’s board about Hungry Valley acquiring the land surrounding the high school—once slated for a housing development. They said they foresee a partnership with the educational goals of the school, including science research internships and programs for Frazier Mountain High School students to learn about operation and maintenance of off-road vehicles.

Photo captions:

(l-r, front) On July 31, Barbara Newbold, Steve Berry, Sabrina Rouser and Misty Johnston were interviewed to select an interim trustee for the ETUSD board. Newbold (below, right) took the oath.

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This is part of the August 15, 2014 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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