WATSONVILLE — An estimated 600 teachers, parents and students packed the Watsonville City Council chambers Wednesday for the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees meeting.

  The crowd was there to protest a proposed cap on the amount the district would contribute to teacher health benefits. 

  Under the proposal, the district would freeze its contribution to the cost of employee benefits. As benefit costs rise, the district contribution would stay the same.

  Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers chief negotiator Jack Carroll said the cap would amount to a five percent pay cut for the 2018-19 school year for K-12 teachers.

  The chamber was so full that Watsonville Fire Chief Pablo Barreto threatened to end the meeting unless some of the attendees cleared the aisles and went to the adjacent community room that was being used to hold the overflow crowd. Some also sat in folding chairs in the hall outside.

  PVUSD Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez said that the district is currently deficit spending, and that its $59 million ending fund balance from the past year was reduced this year to $46 million. The district is further projected to deficit spend another $16 million next year, Rodriguez said.

  That would mean that the district’s next financial projection would show the district unable to pay its bills within three years.

  In an interview Thursday, Rodriguez said the decision to put forward the proposal was not an easy one.

  “We’re not doing the cap on benefits lightly,” Rodriguez said. “The district does value the teachers and the staff, and we are committed to maintaining the singular focus on the students,” Rodriguez said.

  But Rodriguez said that the district is also trying to maintain fiscal solvency.

  Rodriguez’ comments at the meeting to that effect were met with catcalls from the teachers, who say that the district’s projections are off.

  “I feel that is inaccurate,” Carroll said, adding that the district has a seven-year history of predicting a loss in the second interim, and nevertheless having a positive ending fund balance.

  Carroll also pointed out that the district has been offering the benefits without ensuing financial crises for the past two decades.

  Carroll also said that California has education funding in place for the next decade, thanks to Proposition 55, a voter-approved measure that was projected to bring in $7 billion for K-12 schools.

  “It is unimaginable that they would have a fiscal crisis,” he said.

  More than 60 people addressed the trustees, which pushed the meeting until past midnight.

  Mintie White Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Nicole Beverly told the board that she moved to the area from Sacramento four years ago to take a job with the district.

  Since then, she said Santa Cruz County has become her home. That will change if the district follows through on its proposals.

  “If there is a cap on benefits, we’re going to have to move back to Sacramento,” she said. 

  Former Watsonville Mayor Eduardo Montesino, whose three children attend PVUSD schools, also had harsh words for the trustees.

  “It’s such disrespect to see all the teachers who get up so early coming here to fight for their benefits,” he said. “We need to take care of our teachers.”

  According to Carroll, the teachers union will not agree to a contract proposal that contains a benefit cap.

  If that happens, the union and district would ultimately reach an impasse, Carroll said.

  In that event, both sides would call in an impartial state mediator. Should that fail, an impartial “fact finder” would study the issue and present the findings to the Board of Trustees.

  The district would then make a “last, best, final offer,” Carroll said.

  If the union does not accept the offer, the district could then legally impose it on the teachers.

  At that point, the teachers union could call a strike, Carroll said.

  Carroll stressed that this process is “months away,” although he was not optimistic about the current state of negotiations.

  “I see no sign yet the district is going to step away from the benefit cap portion of the proposal,” he said.

  Rodriguez said that several health care options would still be available to teachers.

  Under the proposal, she said, teachers and their families would still have no deductible and a $10 copay. There will be plans that are free, and employees can choose to upgrade. The family plan would stay at $90 per month.

  “My goal is to make sure that every employee has at least one plan that is completely free to them,” she said. “We want people to get what they need and be motivated and happy, but we also have to be fiscally solvent. We don’t want to get into a situation where we have to take more drastic measures.”

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