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San Marcos teachers protesting a contract offer with no pay increase for the 2021-22 school year.
San Marcos teachers unhappy with contract negotiations protested at the district office last month. Photo via Twitter/SMEA
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San Marcos teachers protest school district’s ‘insulting’ contract offer

SAN MARCOS — San Marcos teachers are protesting a school district’s “insulting” contract offer that includes no salary increases for educators during the 2021-22 academic year.

Roughly 300 members of the San Marcos Educators Association, or SMEA, gathered on Feb. 15 in front of the San Marcos Unified School District office to hold a “Heroes Not Zeroes” rally protesting the lack of progress made in contract negotiations with the district.

Due to the complications and restrictions imposed on schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers in San Marcos have been working without a formalized contract.

In a Feb. 2 meeting between teachers and district officials, however, Dale Pluciennik, president of the San Marcos Educators Association, said educators were alarmed and outraged after administrators came to the table with an offer that would raise salaries by 0% for the current school year and just 1.25% for the following academic year.

“Educators have been the glue that’s held our schools together through two years of a global pandemic…so I’m just boggled by it. From what I’ve heard from our teachers they’ve been insulted by this offer,” Pluciennik said. “They’ve already had to deal with so much, their morale is really low, it was low in December before all of this with Omnicron and now it’s so much lower because of this contract offer.”

With salaries for teachers in the rest of San Diego County going by an average of 3.62% last school year, the district’s current offer would make San Marcos the lowest in the county in terms of teacher pay, Pluciennik said.

Recent surges in inflation, coupled with California’s already steep cost of living, make increasing salaries a must if teachers are to maintain a livable wage, said Brandon Maze, an A.P. U.S. History teacher at San Marcos High School who attended the rally.

And since the state’s cost of living is projected to increase by 6% this year, a 1.25% pay increase between the two school years is essentially a salary cut for teachers, Maze added.

“There’s a COLA (cost of living adjustment) this year of 5.07% based on inflation…and the COLA for next year is projected to be upwards of 6%, so that’s a total of 11% for two years and they’re offering us just 1.25% in that time frame…that equates to a pay cut for teachers and it’s going to result in hardship.”

Maze said the teachers union has been disappointed with the district’s intransigence in negotiations thus far, expressing that the 0% offer reflects an administration that isn’t serious about accommodating its educators.

“With these negotiations, the 0% number is a pretty strong message, particularly when we’re the majority of the way through this school year without a contract,” Maze said. “Unfortunately, while the district has said that they value our work, they haven’t shown it, and that’s where we’re here…we would like a fair contract now, we would appreciate a contract that reflects the realities of the situation we’re in.”

Pluciennik agreed, expressing disappointment with what he called mixed messaging coming from district officials during negotiations.

“We’re essentially being offered last place in the county per dollars, and at the same time they tell us that you guys are the best teachers in north county, the county, and the state, and then after all of that they come up with a 0 so it’s like ok what was all that,” Pluciennik said.

In a statement provided to The Coast News, the district defended its actions, asserting that the low salary offer was necessitated by the need to make drastic budgetary cuts as a result of declining student enrollment and a lack of state funding.

“The district is currently experiencing the need for budget reductions for the 2022-23 school year, due to several factors,” said Amy Ventetuolo, a spokesperson for Superintendent Andy Johnsen.

“Like nearly every other school district in the state, SMUSD has experienced declining enrollment. In our case, our enrollment has dropped approximately 1,200 students over the last two years. Additionally, SMUSD is not funded the same as other neighboring districts, resulting in millions of dollars of less revenue each year. With this in mind, SMUSD has been working diligently to provide a salary increase while also looking at making approximately $10-15 million in budget reductions for the 2022-23 budget.”

Pluciennik refuted the district’s claims, arguing that funding for school districts including San Marcos actually increased during 2021 and is expected to increase again for the following school year.

“The state of California has… given billions in additional funding to our schools than ever before…so they have the money for this, it’s in the budget, in fact, they’ve gotten more money than ever before.”

The California Legislature’s Budget Act has increased financial support for schools overall, with spending per pupil going up from $16,881 the prior year to $23,089 in the new budget, according to the California Department of Education.

For the 2022-23 school year, Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed an additional influx of funding for school districts, based on a $102 billion education budget that the governor plans to send to the state legislature this June.

Declining enrollment also isn’t a valid reason to avoid a salary increase, as such a problem isn’t unique to SMUSD or the present time frame, according to Pluciennik.

“This is not unique to San Marcos, every school district has experienced student losses because of the pandemic…and even in the years past when enrollment was growing, they still said ‘Oh, we don’t have the money’ — whether times are good or bad they always say they don’t have the money,” Pluciennik said.

The stresses and pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic in the past two years have been felt heavily by teachers, who have had to adapt to remote and hybrid methods of learning while having to work extra to provide the same level of quality in education that schoolchildren had enjoyed pre-pandemic, the SMEA president said.

“We consider our job noble and professional, we put in all of our efforts, and we’re always there for the kids and I think that’s a big thing for us, it’s like hey we’re working our butts off, we’re working overtime and not getting paid for that obviously, we’re putting in the hours to get these kids to the best they can be and that’s something unique about this job,” Pluciennik said.

Plucinnek added that he’s still optimistic that administrators will come back to the table with a more favorable offer for educators at the next round of negotiations, which is scheduled to take place on February 18.

“We have a brand new superintendent, who we were hoping would be different from our last superintendent…hopefully he sees how badly this first offer went over and will change his mind on it,” Pluciennik said.