Several people hold a huge banner saying "keep teachers in berkeley" in a meeting room
Berkeley teachers campaigned at board meetings and schools for a year and a half before reaching a tentative agreement with BUSD this week. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Update, Nov. 20: The Berkeley School Board unanimously approved the district’s tentative agreement with the Berkeley Federation of Teachers. The union previously ratified the two-year contract with 93% approval from voting members, according to BFT.

Original story, Oct. 31: After months of rallies, teary testimonials, and a final 11-hour negotiation session, Berkeley Unified and the Berkeley Federation of Teachers have finally reached a tentative agreement on the union’s new contract.

Teachers have two weeks to ratify the tentative agreement, released Wednesday afternoon. The School Board has final say. Teachers have been working on an expired contract since the summer.

The new two-year contract would guarantee all teachers raises of 2.5% in 2019-20 and again in 2020-21, plus 7% more next year if a proposed new parcel tax passes. All classified staff (such as custodians and cafeteria workers) as well as administrators (such as principals and program supervisors), who each have their own union, would receive the same 12% increase over two years.  

BFT’s president called it a “historic agreement,” with “huge wins” for educators.

“BUSD salaries will become significantly more competitive in Alameda County, which will help to retain our excellent teachers and hire high-quality new employees,” BFT said in a written summary of the agreement. The district also agreed to significant changes in special education. Special-ed teachers have long said they’re overworked, serving the students with the highest needs while juggling assessments and meetings. Meanwhile, the district has struggled to fill those positions; it began this school year with multiple vacancies. Under the proposed contract, a teacher who serves children with “mild to moderate” disabilities would soon have no more than 21 students in their caseload, while a “moderate to severe” teacher would have up to 10. Those caseloads, as well as new restrictions on assessment load, are much lower than what’s required by state. “People all over the state are going to look to us,” said BFT President Matt Meyer in a phone interview. “It really changes the nature of the job for our case managers. They’re really going to be able to do their jobs better.”
A Berkeley High teacher leads her colleagues in chant to support striking teachers in Oakland and Los Angeles in 2019. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The caseload agreement is not the only change to come to the special-education department this week. Director Jan Hamilton has resigned after just over one year on the job, the district confirmed Thursday. Berkeleyside has reached out to Hamilton for more information.

The tentative agreement also requires BUSD to contribute more towards teachers’ healthcare plans, pay substitute teachers and school psychologists more, and turn Independent Studies teachers into salaried, not hourly, employees.

School district leaders said they were “happy” with the agreement too.

“This tentative agreement demonstrates the district’s commitment to address both compensation and funding gaps that have become realities for most California public school districts and teachers,” said Superintendent Brent Stephens in a press release. “We’re happy to have a tentative agreement in place that honors the hard work and passion for excellence our Berkeley teachers embody on a daily basis and allows us to return our full and collective focus back to the students we serve.”

Administrators have often said they agree that teachers deserve higher pay and better treatment. But with BUSD coming off of two consecutive years of painful budget cuts, staff said the money just wasn’t there for a significant increase.

The two-year 12% raise is a major bump up from the 1% raise and 1% bonus in the teachers’ last contract — but the increase is contingent on receiving additional funds from outside the district.

BUSD staff and board members have thrown their support behind a proposed new tax that could help fund that level of compensation. Voters are likely to see the $10 million-per-year parcel tax, at a rate of 12 cents per square foot, on their March primary ballots.

There have been some mixed feelings about relying on the will and wallets of voters for teachers’ raises. Berkeley schools already enjoy strong support from the community, with taxes and bonds funding facilities costs, maintenance, small class sizes and libraries. The district will be asking voters to renew the facilities bond and maintenance tax in 2020 too.

people play musical instruments outside
Teachers and supporters brought their instruments to a rally before a recent School Board meeting. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Meyer said he agrees with the district that the tax is necessary. “We know the General Fund can’t handle the kind of raises we need, because the state of California doesn’t fully fund education,” he said. The agreement allows BFT to go back to the bargaining table mid-contract if the tax measure fails, Meyer said. For over a year, BFT has waged a highly organized and visible campaign around the new contract. One after another, teachers have shared personal stories at School Board meetings of taking on second jobs and long commutes to make ends meet in the expensive Bay Area. They’ve rung the alarm over colleagues leaving the historically desirable BUSD, sometimes for the nearby districts that pay their employees more. Teachers clad in red and playing festive music while chanting and waving protest signs have become familiar sights outside board meetings and in front of campuses before school. When the final scheduled negotiation session approached in late October without a promise from the district to meet all the salary demands, some teachers took matters into their own hands. Berkeley High employees held two day-long “wildcat strikes,” staying out of work, without authorization from BFT, to increase pressure on the district. Those protesters rallied outside of the bargaining room Monday, with the loud chants forcing negotiators to pause their discussions, Meyer said. The tentative agreement indicates BFT won’t be joining the ranks of the many unions across the state and country that have gone on official strikes in recent years. Closest to home, Oakland teachers went on strike for a week earlier this year, and their Union City counterparts for twice as long. The Chicago Teachers Union appears close to ending its two-week strike. The union says it will now shift its focus to Sacramento, advocating for more state support for public education. Ed. note: This story previously said the tentative agreement allowed for an “up to” 7% increase from the parcel tax. The agreement includes a 7% raise if the tax passes.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...