It's easy to understand why Antioch teachers are demanding a pay hike in their next contract. They've gone four years without a raise, even as costs for health coverage have taken greater bites out their paychecks.

This is not exactly a unique predicament -- in fact, it sounds eerily familiar to some of us -- but it provides context for their discontent. What makes the teachers' position a difficult sell is the timing of their demands and the irony of their argument.

When they vented at a recent trustees meeting, barely a week had passed since voters dug deep to save K-12 schools from fiscal calamity by passing Prop. 30. Teachers' message, though unintended, seemed to be: Now that taxpayers are shelling out more money, you can give more to us.

"Yes, the timing was bad," said Antioch High English teacher Dylan Howell, the union's bargaining chair.

He pointed out, however, that increased salary demands are not a product of Prop. 30. He said teachers would have pushed for pay hikes even without the initiative, although it's hard to imagine that would make them many friends. Imagine the Mt. Diablo district reducing its school year by two weeks because of budget cuts while Antioch teachers demanded raises. Talk about a skunk at a funeral.

Howell said teachers' expectations are borne of the knowledge that Antioch Unified has a sizable reserve fund. Here's where the irony kicks in. That reserve is the product of something educators should be thankful for: prudent budgeting (which included frozen salaries for administrators).


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Because management kept its eyes on the ledger during lean years, teachers were spared furlough days, school libraries were not closed, music classes weren't disbanded and sports teams didn't lose funding. (By contrast, Mt. Diablo imposed all of those budget-cutting measures.)

If you tilted your head in a certain direction, it might sound like Antioch teachers were saying: That's swell you kept the district solvent, but what's in it for us?

What further complicates negotiations is the two sides can't even agree on how to view this perceived pile of money. Superintendent Don Gill, who is sympathetic to teachers, said the so-called "sizable reserve" is more accurately an ending fund balance. "The ending fund balance represents budget dollars," he said. "It's not cash in the bank."

On paper, the district will have a $34 million reserve in three years, he said, but most of it's accounted for. State law requires Antioch to have a $4 million reserve, and expenses are expected to outpace revenue for the next three years. Deficit spending projections are $8 million (2013-14), $7 million (2014-15) and $6 million (2015-16).

"That's $21 million just to maintain operations, and you have expenses besides salaries and benefits," he said, citing buses, fuel, building maintenance, computers and supplies. "That money is to be used to get us through the next three years. We didn't build a reserve to hoard money."

Said Howell, "I like Don Gill, but he and I couldn't disagree more. I'll concede the money's not sitting in the bank, but it is real money."

Inasmuch as the two sides can't even agree on whether there are funds to tap, this discussion is apt to go on for a while. But it's a better discussion to have than how many days must be cut from the school year to make the budget balance.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.