No secret, classified employees not happy

By Reggie Ellis

Classified employees of Exeter Public Schools picketed the district's most recent salary and benefit package last week voicing their disappointment at the district's proposal asking employees to pay for a portion of their health coverage.

Bus drivers, cafeteria workers, office clerks, librarians, custodians and nurses clad in CSEA (California School Employees Association) T-shirts carried signs reading &#8220Cut somewhere else,” &#8220Hard work should equal fair wages,” and &#8220Small towns take care of their people” prior to both the Exeter high school and elementary school board meetings on Oct. 20 and 25 respectively.

Margie Reed, president of CSEA's Chapter 15, spoke on behalf of the group during the board meetings.

&#8220We are the people that bring your kids to school, keep the school running and answer your phones,” she said. &#8220We are backbone of this district and these are the people you are hurting. We have always stepped up. Now it is time for the district to step up.”

Reed, who has worked for the district as a guidance associate for 11 years, said she has never received a raise that covered the increase in the cost of living or a &#8220true raise.” She said the district should be offering to pay for any increase in health benefits when they are sitting on a reserve of 11% of expenditures.

&#8220Whenever there is a financial crisis, we are the first employees to tighten our belts and only take a 1% increase,” she said. &#8220But the district is benefiting on the backs of the classified employees.”

The main sticking point in the negotiations is the $43.41 per month per person increase in health insurance, which includes dental, vision, behavioral health, prescriptions and medical coverage. In October, the district's health coverage for classified employees increased from $735 per month to $778.41 per month. While the district is paying the difference for all employees now, Superintendent Renee Whitson said most school district's are asking both classified and certificated employees to pay a portion of their health insurance as prices climb higher each year.

&#8220It is a big paradigm shift for people,” Whitson said. &#8220People are used to the district paying in full for health coverage, but that's changing [throughout the state].”

Reed said that for some employees, $43.41 is their entire monthly paycheck. &#8220Asking teachers to pay for some of their benefits is one thing, but we don't make what teachers make. The reality is we live paycheck to paycheck.”

Whitson said the school district's primary goal is to be fiscally responsible and pay employees the mean of wages paid in like school districts, such as Lindsay, Woodlake and Famersville. Of those, Lindsay is the only district that covers all of its employees' health insurance. As for not tapping into the reserves, Whitson said that money equals two months of payroll costs in the district. About 85% of the district's budget is spent on personnel. Health insurance costs the district an average of $9,341 per employee per year.

&#8220Classified employees are a vital part of who we are,” Whitson said. But, she said, the district is also looking out for the 31 classified employees who do not work enough hours to qualify for health insurance. &#8220If we put more money into health coverage it doesn't benefit for those who aren't eligible.” Those employees would only see a benefit in additional wages.

Whitson said the district is also experiencing declining enrollment number. School districts are primarily funded through the Average Daily Attendance (ADA) numbers reported to the state. Presumably the enrollment is down because of more retirees and young couples without children moving into town. Inter-district transfer numbers remain steady indicating that Exeter schools are still held in high regard.

&#8220We have to prepare for at least two years of declining enrollment,” she said.

Whitson said the district has made a commitment to keep employees to avoid any layoffs that might be used a cost-cutting measure for school districts.

&#8220We value our classified employees and we have always been able to come back to the table and work things out,” Whitson said. &#8220We have more meetings already scheduled and look forward to coming to an agreement.”

Linda Wallace, who has worked for six years as an office assistant in the district office, was also there to show her support. She was asked if it bothered her to picket today, knowing she had to face administration the following morning.

&#8220I've done bargaining for 35 years,” said the former union representative for workers at Con-Tel telephone company. &#8220They might have a problem with me, but none of this bothers me. I'll smile and wave like I do every morning.”

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