Fiscal, Demographic, and Performance Data on California’s K-12 Schools

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Negotiating Teachers' Contracts in California

This article provides a brief look at how contracts are negotiated for K-12 public school teachers in California school districts.


Nearly all California school districts now have a teachers union affiliated with either the California Teachers Association (CTA) or the California Federation of Teachers (CFT), or sometimes both. The primary activity of a union is to represent the teachers in negotiating the terms of employment contracts, called collective bargaining.

Under the Rodda Act, passed in 1975, the school board and the union must review the terms of the existing agreement at least once every three years. The result of this negotiating determines the salaries and benefits, hours, calendar, and most aspects of teachers’ working conditions. Negotiators can also discuss problems and address new issues that have arisen during the period of the contract. This can be especially significant when the Legislature and governor have passed new laws—for example, about school finance or teacher training and evaluation. A district can implement these laws only after the impact has been bargained.

The schedule for negotiations is jointly planned, and the process can extend over many months. Negotiations may be private. The “sunshine” clause of the Rodda Act requires that each party’s initial bargaining proposal be presented for public comment at a publicized school board meeting. Any new subjects raised later must be made public within 24 hours, and the school board must explain the financial impact of any proposed settlement before adopting the final contract.

Negotiations eventually result in a signed contract that is binding on both the board and the union. It applies to all the teachers in the bargaining unit whether or not all of them have joined the union. Those who have joined the union pay union dues. 

The Scope of Negotiations

Of great interest to the school board and the union are the issues and subjects that either party may raise in negotiations. The set of issues is called the “scope.” Although a limited scope was defined in the original law, the appeals process, litigation, and new laws have added items. Some—such as wages, specified benefits, evaluation, and hours of employment—must be negotiated. Other items, such as teacher assignment and early retirement, are part of the scope but do not have to be discussed.

Still others are “consultative,” meaning that the union must be consulted on the topic. Examples include the content of courses and curricula, or textbooks. The school board may expand the list, but the results do not have to be included in the contract.

Finally, some items are “non-negotiable” because state laws contained in the Education Code preempt bargaining. Examples include due process for dismissing permanent teachers, those with “tenure,” as well as seniority rights for layoffs. However, the code does allow exceptions to seniority-based layoffs if a district has a specific need to maintain specialized services, such as those provided by a school nurse or special education teacher, or to maintain or achieve equal protection under the law. 

In the case of seniority-based dismissals, however, typical practices are being increasingly challenged. This is a policy area that has received increased focus, particularly as it relates to equal protection under the law.

Contents of a Typical Teachers' Contract

Compensation: cost-of-living adjustment, salary schedule, pay for specific duties (department chair, coach), minimum teacher salaries, expenses, travel reimbursement, tuition reimbursement, mentor teacher selection process

Benefits: health and welfare premiums, specific plans offered, retiree benefits

Hours: length of work day, work year, student year, calendar (holidays, vacations), minimum days, preparation periods, lunch

Leaves: bereavement, pregnancy, child rearing, religious, sick, disability, sabbatical, personal need/necessity, jury duty, military, industrial accident/illness, catastrophic illness

Retirement: early retirement, benefits


Job assignment: assignment, promotion, transfer, reassignment

Class size and caseloads: pupils per teacher, students per counselor, number of teaching periods, instructional aides

Safety conditions

Evaluation: procedures and remediation

Grievance: procedures, appeal process, mediation, arbitration

Discipline: procedures and criteria

Layoff and Reemployment

Organizational security: payroll deduction of union dues ("agency fee"), maintenance of membership, fair share fees, union rights

Work stoppage: "no-strikes" clause

Contract: duration, reopeners

Savings clause: contract in effect if portion invalidated by court, Legislature

Management rights: authority "to the full extent of the law"

Consultation: topics, procedures

The Public Employment Relations Board

Because serious disagreements can arise at any time, the Legislature created a state-level adjudicating body and spelled out the steps for resolving disputes. The five-member Public Employment Relations Board (PERB)—a quasi-judicial administrative agency whose members are appointed by the governor—is responsible for interpreting collective bargaining issues. The board handles questions, appoints fact finders, and maintains a public file of all signed agreements for public schools and other public agencies. Its rulings are final unless either side in a dispute challenges the findings in court. 

Process for handling disputes

The complex process for handling conflicts has three progressively serious stages:

  1. Unfair labor practice. This is a complaint, from either party or an individual teacher, that the law or the contract is not being followed. The steps toward resolution can include review by PERB or a neutral third party, a hearing, and finally a review by the full PERB board.
  2. Impasse/mediator/fact finding. This situation occurs when negotiations break down completely. Often a mediator is appointed first but, failing resolution at that stage, the dispute can go to fact finding under a PERB-provided chairperson. The recommended settlement is not binding on either party, and negotiations resume.
  3. Work-to-rule/strike. Pressure tactics are common in confrontational bargaining. Teachers can decide to strictly follow the working hours in the contract (called "work to rule"), and they can also stage a sick-out or have informational picketing. The last resort is a strike, which the California Supreme Court has ruled permissible unless public health or safety is threatened. Teachers unions in California have rarely called strikes.

District management and unions can also disagree over the application of the provisions in the contract. Grievance procedures differ among districts. Mediation is sometimes used to resolve the issue, and arbitration can become necessary. Even at that point the final recommendation is advisory only-unless the contract already specifies that arbitration is binding on both parties.

Typical concerns in negotiations

Aside from the basic topics of salaries, benefits, major working conditions, and the implementation of new legislation affecting teachers, two issues are perennially interesting—and often controversial—to the union, the school board, and the public. These are the validity of data and the presence (or absence) of clear communication.

The facts about the district's financial condition—its expected revenues and spending priorities or constraints—are crucial to the negotiating process. The union sometimes charges district administrators with "hiding" money that the union asserts should be included in negotiations. The board may choose to set aside revenue as not available for salary and benefits increases. In negotiations, both sides may use different districts' salary schedules for comparisons. Money is at the heart of the negotiating process, and both sides often interpret available revenues and comparative need for increases differently.

The progress of negotiations is also hard to nail down because regular public communication is often limited. The school community rarely has access to information until the school board releases the explanation of how the proposed settlement will affect the district's finances. Evaluating either side's demands or claims is difficult, sometimes impossible, when these are not related to money.

The environment for public schools is always changing, with new regulations, technologies, and—especially lately—"reforms." This dynamic presents a challenge for each district's teachers union-school board relationship. Collective bargaining affects how education dollars are spent locally and how new laws affect the classroom.