First published in the Feb. 5 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
It is widely known how difficult the past 23 months have been for educators, administrators and students throughout California with a pandemic that shuttered school sites for nearly a year.
Another group in the Burbank Unified School District has also felt the wear and tear of the challenges brought on by COVID-19, and they let their voices be heard to the Board of Education.
More than a dozen classified employees, which includes custodians and food service workers, rallied at a board meeting Thursday asking the board for some compensation or increase in wages as Burbank and every major city in the state grapples with an affordability crisis in terms of cost of living exacerbated by the coronavirus.
“Enough is enough,” said Roberto Villalta, a custodian at Dolores Huerta Middle School. “We need to have better salaries. … If I go to the gas station, I will pay almost $5. If [Superintendent Matt Hill] goes to the gas station in the same place, he would pay the same price as me, so it’s time, Board of Education.”
Hector Alegria, a safety utility technician, pays that price per gallon for his daily trips to Burbank from San Bernardino — more than 60 miles — because he can’t afford rent near work.
“How much do I make? $1,100 every two weeks,” he told the board. “How much is left? Nothing. So, the point is we need your help, and we are asking you from the bottom of our hearts.”
Louis Ayala, a BUSD senior ground technician and California Schools Employee Association executive representative, translated for some of the Spanish-speaking employees and informed the board that some classified staff are taking home as little as $200 every two weeks because of medical insurance while others make anywhere between $900-$1,300.
“Those are real numbers from real people,” he said. “Our classified employees are tired. They’re frustrated, knowing that in order to be present at this meeting they had to skip their lunch break just to address the board, and they have to run back to their site and finish the area.”
Negotiations between the district and labor unions are ongoing, but classified workers wanted board members to understand their sense of urgency as many are living paycheck to paycheck and fear homelessness due to increases in rent and food. Some of them are working a second job to support their families, and all of them have been doing more than usual because of the lack of substitute custodians.
“Cost of living is so high. At this time, I might end up losing my place. That’s not fair,” said Della Paige, a custodian who has worked with the district for 29 years. “I’ve dedicated my life to this district. … We’re going to be on the streets because you guys aren’t looking at us, and we’re the ones that sit here and bust our butts every night and do security trying to keep the schools up to par. And we don’t get no return, no nothing, no thank you, no appreciation.”
Hill said he could not discuss details because the two sides are still bargaining but assured employees present that they are doing their best.
“What we’re trying to do is be as creative as possible with the resources that we have to provide a fair offer at the bargaining table,” he said in response to the comments from employees. “I will say we are coming with our creative ideas and we look forward to continuing to work with you.”
Ayala claimed that teachers are getting a 5% bump in pay this year, and said he was happy for them because “they’re all so wonderful and they deserve everything they get” and asked that the district match that or do better because of the disparity of salaries between the two. According to him, teachers on average make $60,000 and custodians make less than half of that.
“I know we throw money at the problem by offering them overtime, but in reality, their children are growing up without a father and without a mother because they have to work day and night in order to provide for their children; not to mention, they have to pay medical bills,” said Ayala, who added that classified employees use their sick days to spend time with their family.
Board members empathized with the custodians and food service workers and admitted to grappling with the question posed by Ayala: “Am I doing my best to bring out the best in the district?”
“That’s a question I ask myself all the time,” Board member Steve Frintner admitted. “I know you’ve heard us say before and I hope that you trust and believe that we are being sincere [in saying] we do respect the work you do. We know how important you are to our district.”
President Charlene Tabet is hopeful that a resolution between the two parties can be found, especially with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s most recent budget proposal addressing the statewide issue of declining enrollment and birth rates. To minimize the impact of having fewer students in school, Newsom is proposing that school funding — which is based on average daily attendance — be based on attendance from the current academic year, the prior year or an average of the last three years, whichever is highest. The move would give more money to schools. In addition, a bill proposed by state Sen. Anthony Portantino would replace the decades-old school funding formula with one based on enrollment rather than attendance.
“Finding that money is important and vital,” Tabet said. “I think that it’s coming, even at the state level. I’m hoping they’re seeing what we’re seeing that the need is there. We need to put more money in the schools. …. But our people who work for us are the most important to me and getting those needs met are very important.”
Vice President Steve Ferguson suggested that the district staff should start including compensation when discussing the budget moving forward so that they start building something to aim for. He also wants to explore the possibility of providing affordable housing for employees and work with city officials on achieving that.
“Are we doing enough? No, but we are unfortunately in a time where our very best efforts seem to be consumed within a second,” Ferguson said.
Emily Weisberg, along with fellow board member Armond Aghakhanian, commended the employees for their courage to speak in public, and let them know that their stories resonated with her.
“This is important. You are as important to us as any person who works in the district, and something that I need to spend a lot of time thinking about and grappling with is what I can do to actually make you feel that way because I hear you when you say you don’t,” she said. “That’s valid and that’s something I need to be working on and be better at.”