LONG BEACH — Teachers in the Long Beach Unified School District will get their first look today at a tentative contract that would give them a 24% raise over three years but falls short of a key teacher demand for binding arbitration of grievances.
Ending the longest and one of the most bitter contract disputes in district history, negotiators reached agreement late last week after nearly a year of talks.
"Most of (the teachers) have expressed relief that it's all over with," said Don Goddard, president of the Teachers Assn. of Long Beach, which represents the district's 2,800 teachers.
After viewing the tentative settlement at a special meeting this afternoon, Goddard said, he expects the teachers to ratify it on Tuesday during a vote on their campuses. Ratification by the Board of Education would then follow at the board's March 17 meeting.
At the heart of the contract dispute was the teachers' demand for binding arbitration of grievances. Specifically, the teachers said they wanted the right to call in neutral third parties to settle grievance disputes, while the school board opposed binding arbitration as a costly erosion of its power.
While the new contract does not allow for binding arbitration, it does amend the grievance process to include non-binding mediation, which Goddard says is an acceptable compromise.
"It's a step in the right direction," he said. "Once we've had this in effect, we might (eventually) get binding arbitration."
James Zarifes, a member of the Board of Education and an outspoken opponent of binding arbitration, disagreed. But Zarifes said he favored mediation as an opportunity for the district to put behind it the "expensive and often disconcerting" contract negotiations of the past months and return to the business of education. "We're real happy that it's resolved," he said of the dispute over the new contract to replace the one that expired Aug. 31.
No Binding Decision
Under the proposed settlement, mediators will be called in to help settle grievances before they reach the school board. But unlike arbitrators, who, after listening to both sides make a ruling that is binding on each party, the mediators will work with the disputing parties directly to help them arrive at their own solutions.
"The process depends on the willingness of the parties to make it work," said Tom McCarthy, the presiding Southern California mediator for the state Mediation/Conciliation Service, which provides mediators for various types of disputes involving public employees.
In fact, it was McCarthy, serving as the mediator in the district's negotiating process, who suggested the compromise that was ultimately accepted as the basis of the tentative contract agreement. One major advantage of mediation, he said, is that mediators are provided by the state at government expense while arbitrators come from private agencies that would charge the district and the union as much as $700 a day for their services.
McCarthy said he knows of a number of school districts in the state that have successfully used mediators to settle grievances. In cases where mediation does not succeed in finding a solution, he said, final disposition of a case would still be up to the school board.
Long Beach board members say they are comfortable with the compromise because it does not undermine their ultimate authority in the grievance process. "The board still has the full and final authority to resolve all grievances," said Zarifes. "Nothing has changed."
At least one board member, Harriet Williams, said she agrees with teachers that the settlement is a step toward binding arbitration. "It's kind of a foot in the door," said Williams, who had argued unsuccessfully for binding arbitration during some of the board's closed meetings. "What the other board members objected to was being told what to do. This will give us a chance to look at it and see if that third party coming in with an objective viewpoint might be a help."
Spokesmen on both sides said they planned to meet with McCarthy within the next two weeks to work out the details of the mediation compromise. Although it had not yet been determined precisely where in the grievance process a mediator would be called in, most said they expected it to occur after the school superintendent has heard a grievance but before it goes to the board. The current grievance procedure calls for four levels of appeal, beginning with the school principal and ending with the Board of Education.