Local News Matters weekly newsletter

Start your week with a little inspiration. Sign up for our informative, community-based newsletter, delivered on Mondays with news about the Bay Area.

Nearly 200 teachers, parents and young children from the Alum Rock Union School District protested at the intersection of Capital Avenue and McKee Road following months of stalled negotiations between the district and the teacher’s union.

They called their protest a “human billboard” as they walked in a square along the East San Jose intersection Nov. 17 demanding that the teachers requests for more pay, smaller class sizes and more PPE supply for students and staff are met.

The teacher’s union and the district are in the middle of negotiating a three-year contract for the 2021-22 through 2023-24 school years.

Teachers have been asking for a 4.5 percent raise — a modest ask in their opinion because they voluntarily did not receive a raise in the last two years.

But the district is offering 1.75 percent raise with a one-time payment equivalent to 3 percent of a teacher’s base pay, citing fiscal concerns.

“Our teachers were generous and accepted nothing last year and so when you factor that in, then there’s a desire to say, ‘let’s make up for what we didn’t do last year’ and rightly so,” ARUSD Board of Trustees Vice President Andres Quintero said. “Our situation, however, is from the vantage point of … finding out what is the most that we responsibly can provide while maintaining fiscal solvency.”

Quintero continued that balancing those is why there is a gap between what the district is offering and what teachers are asking for.

Reaching an impasse

The negotiations began in February of this year and by Nov. 3, the district officially declared impasse.

“It’s been like a slap in the face,” said Jocelyn Merz, Alum Rock Educators Association (AREA) President.

This is because the district’s reserves grew from 9 percent 14 percent over the last year, Merz said.

Last negotiation cycle, teachers agreed to bypass a raise because the district said there were threats of lapsation which is when the state takes over a school district because the district runs out of money.

But with growing reserves, a 5.07 percent increase in cost-of-living adjustment funding from the state and $56 million from COVID-19 economic relief, “we know we’re not asking for anything more than we know the district has the funds to pay,” Merz said.

Right now, the ARUSD ranks 28 out of Santa Clara County’s 34 school districts in terms of starting salary.

“We are in the bottom 20 percent,” Merz said. “And to us it shows that’s where the district has placed teachers as their priority.”

Merz, who taught in the district for more than 30 years, said over the last years teachers have struggled to afford living in the district on their salary. But tensions started to rise months into the pandemic when teachers were asked to do more, without additional compensation.

“My PG&E bills, for example, skyrocketed since working from home,” Merz said. “Work follows you home because there is no divide.”

Andres Quintero, vice president of the ARUSD Board of Trustees, speaks to Jocelyn Merz, Alum Rock Educators Association president, during the protest. Teachers are seeking a 4.5 percent raise, while the district is offering 1.75 percent and a one-time payment based on base salary. (Photo by Jana Kadah/Bay City News)

Feeling heartbroken

Julia Bargas, a second-grade teacher in the district for three decades and an ARUSD alumna who put her children and grandchildren through the district, said she was heartbroken over stalled negotiations.

“We used to have help in the classrooms, we used to have regular support, regular raises, cleaner nicer facilities, more people working there,” Bargas said. “I can believe that it’s been hard for the district as well to keep up with things, but it feels like its been coming down on us.”

Talking through her tears, she shared that it has been hard to come back to the classroom and teach young children how to adjust back to school and learn social skills after months of online learning, with what seems like a lack of support from the district.

Many prep periods, where teachers grade assignments, call parents and organize lesson plans, were given up by teachers because the district couldn’t find other teachers to fill in that gap.

“What that means is those assignments that need to be graded, that work teachers get done in that hour, are done after hours,” Merz said.

Teachers shared that they have avoided taking sick days or days off because of a substitute teacher shortage.

And many teachers have left. In fact, in this year alone, seven teachers resigned at ARUSD.

“We have lost so many awesome new teachers and the past 10 years, five years because of the way they hire, and they’re getting ready to lose people like us too, because we’re tired,” Bargas said.

Pressured by pandemic

Not only that, teachers at the protest said, but a lack of PPE supplies have made many of her collogues feel unsafe at work.

Just between August and November of this year, there were 163 COVID exposure notices sent throughout the district, according to data collected by Merz.

“It’s not just about the money,” Bargas said. “We care about your kids that we think … your kids could do anything any other child can do.”

This is when the tears got the best of her. She explained that the lack of investment in the teachers makes it hard for the district to retain competitive staffing and larger class sizes makes it harder to reach each student.

“These all, in the end of the day, impact my students, your kids,” Bargas said.

Many parents also turned up on Wednesday to show their support for teachers.

Natalie Abal, a mother of three children under 10 at Ryan Elementary, also held back tears.

“It’s not just about the money. We care about your kids that we think … your kids could do anything any other child can do.”

Julia Bargas, second-grade teacher

“It’s sad to think like some of these teachers that I’ve seen for so many years, they have been there to support the students (and) that we could potentially lose them,” Abal said. “Because there’s neighboring districts that, unfortunately, are going to pay them more than what they’re getting here.”

She said the high turnover rates at ARUSD have already impacted her children, especially one of them who has an individual educational plan and meets with specialized educators.

“Over the past couple years, there’s been three or four different, different people with my child,” Abal said. “It’s concerning, because like new people are jumping in during part of the year, and they don’t know your child and then you know, you feel like your child is just falling behind more and more.”

She said she recognized that the lack of investments in education were not unique to Alum Rock, but said in such a historically disenfranchised community, the impacts are greater.

“Our kids are some of the most vulnerable and so their class sizes need to stay small and not increase,” the mother of three said. “They deserve consistency and stability, and they deserve a chance like everyone else, and they just, they deserve a proper education.”

Bargas echoed the sentiment.

“I think Alum Rock gets a bad rep. I don’t know if people believe that we are as good as we are,” she said. “This is a good place; we are good people.”