Three Rivers teachers make history, unionize

For the first time in Three Rivers School District history its teachers have unionized. Of the eight teachers, six decided to join California Teachers Association (CTA.)

Three Rivers Union Elementary School District was founded in 1927 and is a kindergarten through eighth grade with an enrollment of 133 students. After eighth grade Three Rivers’ students become part of the Woodlake Unified School District.

Laura Himm, a fifth grade teacher and the school union’s representative, said the decision to join a union has been a few years in the making and that each teacher had their own reasons for wanting to join CTA. Their membership into the union was finalized in May but negotiations on their contract with the administration have stalled since that time.

In response the union requested to be put on the trustee’s regular September 11 agenda. Himm read a statement, with the support of the other teachers, outlining the reasons why the teachers joined a union.

“One major reason for becoming members is so that we can directly negotiate our contracts and duties with the board,” Himm read. “We knew going into negotiations that the school budget could not support drastic salary increases. We feel there are other ways to be compensated, thereby counterbalancing what we don’t make in earnings, boosting morale so that we can make this the only school district we ever work for again.”

Three Rivers teachers have never been involved in negotiating their contract and this was a daunting factor in joining a union. Three Rivers School Board and administration has always written the teacher’s contract themselves without a designated
representative from the teachers.

It is important to note though, that because of the district’s size, it is common to have board members or administrators that are also teachers or former teachers. Sue Sherwood, who has dedicated herself to Three Rivers’ students for years, is the district’s superintendent and the eighth grade teacher. She often is involved with forming the contract. It was her impending retirement that motivated some of the teachers to join the CTA.

“Another compelling reason that we have chosen to join the union,” Himm read, “is centered around the availability of legal support. As teachers, we are not exempt from being sued by a parent or needing legal representation for a school employment issue, and as a member of a union, we are now able to receive advice and counsel, when necessary. ”

Himm continued, “As members we also receive liability insurance as a safeguard against unforeseen accidents, injury, and/or other incidents that can occur in a classroom. Without this assistance, we would have to pay out-of-pocket for lawyers and legal counsel. The legal advice, representation, and help with fees that the union offers in the event of legal proceedings or disciplinary action are invaluable. ”

Himm added that teachers she had consulted with about CTA said that the legal services and the help covering the costs had been “career-saving benefits.”

Professional development opportunities were also cited as a benefit of joining CTA. She said that CTA offers a wide range of “events and training courses to enable their members to update their skills and knowledge at no cost to the district.”

One of the items being negotiated is the “professional school day,” which means a teacher must be on campus from 8am – 4pm.

The teachers see eliminating this provision as one of the benefits the administration can offer to counterbalance the fact that their salaries are not competitive with the rest of the school districts in the county.

Most of the teachers work well beyond 40 hours, working on holidays, weekends, and meeting with parents after school. The teachers want the flexibility to leave before 4pm for appointments or family obligations without having to request sick or vacation time.

Another aspect of the negotiation involves utilizing combination classes. Both the administration and teachers agree that combination classes are necessary as enrollment decreases.

Linda Warner, who joined the CTA, said that because of declining enrollment her class sizes over the last couple of years have hovered around 18 students.

When a teacher left recently the administration concluded it did not have the money to hire a new teacher and combined her grade with other classrooms.

Warner said that the mountain village has changed and that Three Rivers is losing its family-based community as the cost of living rises and available housing decreases. She said that there is a vibrant airbnb group in Three Rivers that has taken many family dwellings off the market.

Because the Three Rivers School District and Three Rivers Educators’ Association are still in negotiations, the Board of Trustees did not respond to Himm’s statement but opened the floor up for public comment. One former parent, Tim Wilson, said he was attending the meeting in support of the teachers. He said his children would have never made it without the dedication of the teachers at Three Rivers.

When asked her prognosis of when negotiations will end Himm said, “We have been negotiating since last May. We are really hoping that things are settled next month!”

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