Columnists Opinion

It’s time for Inglewood teacher’s union to cooperate with district

At the February Inglewood school board meeting, members of the Inglewood Teachers Association (ITA) gathered to voice their opposition to a proposal by the school district to reduce its contribution to employee health benefits.

Inglewood Unified currently pays 100 percent of each employee health care premium costs, but in order to reduce a projected budget deficit for the 2018-19 school year, it is asking teachers to pay up to 40 percent of their premium costs.

Speaking before the school board, ITA leaders Dave Brown, political action chair, and Aba Ngissah, union president, angrily asked why teachers are being asked to pay for financial mismanagement committed by the state since it took over the Inglewood school district in 2012.

While it is legitimate for ITA to point out that the state has done a poor job managing district finances, the arguments they presented are of questionable credibility because there is palpable evidence the union played a role in the state taking over the school district in the first place. The union was silent when the state put the school district $29 million in debt and failed to balance the budget five out of six years.

Since taking over the school district, the state has avoided cutting teacher salaries and benefits to balance the budget, and in 2016 authorized a 5 percent salary increase.

In 2012, then-ITA President Peter Somberg refused to negotiate with the former superintendent and the school board salary on benefit concessions needed to keep the school district solvent. Somberg and California Teachers Association representative Jeff Good favored disenfranchising the community and supported legislation authorizing the takeover of the school district, making the school board powerless and reducing its members to the role of advisors to the state administrator.

At the time of the state takeover, Inglewood Unified was not the only school district in financial trouble, but it was the only school district not supported by its teacher’s union and, as a consequence, it was the only school district to enter state receivership.

When the state took over the school district, Somberg said, “I am heartened by the knowledge that my good friend Superintendent Tom Torlakson and the other professionals that will be overseeing this process are equally committed to our children and to listening to the voices of parents, teachers, students and staff as we move forward.”

Six years following the state takeover, Inglewood Unified has to pay $1.8 million each year for 20 years for a loan taken out by the state without financial justification. Those are funds that should be spent on programs to improve student academic performance.

Additionally, union leadership contributed to Inglewood’s growing budget deficit when Good insisted before the Employee Health Benefits Committee that the school district sign a health benefits contract with VEBA Trust, a union-affiliated health benefits provider, which reportedly added millions to Inglewood’s health benefits costs.

When Somberg and Good were lobbying for the state to take over Inglewood schools, members of the state Board of Education warned them that when the state takes over a school district, teacher salaries and benefits will be impacted by actions required to return the district to fiscal solvency. They said they knew the stakes of a state takeover and they knew it would be a lot harder on their members.

The reason why only now the teachers are facing any reduction in their benefits is the current state administrator, Thelma Meléndez, unlike her predecessors, is no longer willing to use borrowed money to pay the bills. As long as the state operated the school district using borrowed funds which mortgaged the future of Inglewood students, the Inglewood Teachers Association leaders were complicit and a partner to the state’s mismanagement.

Whether Somberg or Good discussed with current ITA leadership that teacher’s benefits could be cut is not known. Regardless, current ITA leaders are accountable for the actions of leaders preceding them. To quote Colin Powell, “You broke it, you own it.”

Had ITA cooperated and worked with the school board and the superintendent in 2012 to keep Inglewood Unified under community control, the school district would have developed on a different financial trajectory. In 2013, with monies from the newly introduced Local Control Funding Formula and funds available from the passage of Proposition 30, Inglewood could have balanced its budget.

Under responsible community control, Inglewood would likely have a budget surplus today and be able to better compensate its employees.

But that’s not the condition that Meléndez found the school district in when she accepted her appointment last August. Her proposal to reduce contributions to employee health benefits is only part of her plan to restore the school district’s finances to the point where local control is restored to the Inglewood community.

These kinds of actions should have been taken six years ago, but to her credit, these financial strategies are finally being initiated by her administration.

It’s time for ITA to make up for the bad judgment of previous leaders and support the actions of the state administrator. Only then can they turn this district’s finances around and put Inglewood on a path to recovery and building a sound financial foundation so that it can provide the best education possible for its students.

Joe Bowers is a public education advocate. He is a retired engineer and business executive and a graduate of Stanford University.