Local 856 keeps cuts away from the classroom and saves school district jobs

Teamsters 856 members rallied in support of graduate tutors at the West Contra Costa Unified School District Board meeting on March 20, 2019.

After a Teamsters 856-led campaign that included West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) members, students, parents, and teachers joining forces, 25 graduate tutors will return to the classroom and learning centers this school year after facing all but certain cuts.

“Fighting and winning makes me feel more encouraged to keep fighting when I feel something is wrong or could be better,” said Justin Johnson, an elementary school graduate tutor. “Together we can make a difference.”

The WCCUSD Board of Education had voted in December to cut all of the district’s graduate tutors effective the 2019-2020 school year in its attempt to balance the district’s budget deficit. However, instead of accepting the board’s decision, the graduate tutors stood together and fought as a union and saved positions originally slated for elimination.

If finalized, the WCCUSD board’s plan would have had a devastating effect on students in the district who rely on graduate tutors as an educational safety net. One in every three WCCUSD students is an English Learner. The district’s plan to cut the graduate tutor program would have disproportionately impacted many of its most vulnerable students.

Abigail Guzman-Murjia is a WCCUSD graduate tutor and member of Local 856.

“There are numbers on that budget, but behind those numbers, there are people,” said Local 856 Secretary-Treasurer/Principal Officer Peter Finn during a WCCUSD Board meeting. “There are teachers, there are grad tutors, there are kids, there are services…we ask that you prioritize the classroom and look to save the graduate tutors.”

Graduate tutors, along with their Local 856 representatives, met with the district to discuss alternative ways to balance the budget and mobilized students, parents, and teachers to join them at these meetings to do the same. They also told their stories publicly and explained how the elimination of graduate tutors would negatively impact students. Over 100 letters of support from district teachers, classified staff, students, and parents were gathered. (Click here to read the stories and many of the letters.) In addition, they garnered support from the broader community in the form of over 700 petition signatures.

Their demand of the WCCUSD Board was simple: “Keep cuts out of our classrooms.”

Graduate Tutor Abigail Guzman-Murjia works with small groups of students who are falling behind their grade level to re-teach them concepts they may not have grasped in class, to help them catch up and succeed. Many graduate tutors are bilingual and work closely with immigrant students and English Learner students.

“I mainly work with students in our shelter classes where English learners are together,” said Abigail. “I’m able to sit in the classroom with my students while their teacher lectures and support them in the concepts in which they need help. The benefit is that they’re able to understand what is happening in the classroom despite the language barrier.”

During one board meeting, a WCCUSD English Learner student tasked board members with putting themselves in the position of the students who would lose out if all of their graduate tutors were cut.

“You are taking away the opportunity to other students that have the will to succeed and to learn another language,” she explained. “With much respect, think if any of you would have a family in our situation. You would take away this opportunity that is so important. How could you do it?”

Justin Johnson is a WCCUSD graduate tutor and member of Local 856.

The campaign worked: in May, the WCCUSD Board voted unanimously to save 25 graduate tutor positions.

In the end, for the graduate tutors, it’s about their students. “Students are all very happy to know tutors will remain,” said Abigail. “They will continue to have the needed support.”