Just as the new school year has begun, Petaluma City Schools and its teachers union have reached an impasse in contract negotiations and are enlisting the help of a state mediator to reach an accord.
Both parties agreed July 12 that they couldn't agree on several items that came up for discussion with one year left on a three-year contract, so state assistance was sought.
This week, the union filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the state over the district's imposition of an extended kindergarten day at Penngrove Elementary, which opened Wednesday.
Extended kindergarten, though not a contract item, is under dispute because teachers believe it hasn't been studied enough to implement properly. The unfair labor complaint stems from the district changing teachers' working conditions because of the longer kindergarten days, Petaluma Federation of Teachers spokesman Terry Elverum said.
District Superintendent Steve Bolman said it was surprising the groups are this far apart since they came to a tentative agreement in May that the teachers' negotiating committee was comfortable with.
But 86 percent of the full membership of the Petaluma Federation of Teachers, which represents about 450 teachers, counselors, psychologists, nurses and other certificated employees district-wide, rejected the agreement, Elverum said.
Once a state mediator is appointed, the sides will begin gathering information to present to a three-person panel that will ultimately vote on a new recommended deal. Bolman said no timeframe has been mapped out for that process.
The primary issues for the union, Elverum said, are the longer kindergarten days and a new grading and "parent portal" program called Aeries.net through which parents are able to track their child's progress.
As with the longer days, the district has the right to implement the new program, Elverum acknowledged, but teachers are concerned about training and support for what he called an untested program.
Teachers are also seeking a 3 percent salary increase, which would be their first since 2007-2008.
Bolman said the district has agreed to cease furloughs, which amounted to eight unpaid days a year and a 4.5 percent salary cut. With the reinstatement of the furlough pay, district employees would be paid between 2 percent and 3.5 percent more than comparable districts in the area.
There has been no counteroffer from the district on a raise, Elverum said.
"We want the district to consider giving something to the teachers, who've worked so hard to get the district through these difficult financial years," he said. "And the time is now."
The district also agreed to pick up the full increase to the most popular health plan and to raise the district's contribution, which totals nearly $13,000 a year for a family.
Bolman said an earlier version of Aeries was vetted the past two years at two junior high schools.
The union is asking the state to halt the implementation of extended kindergarten and the Aeries program for this year, Elverum said. Kindergarten classes are 90 minutes longer four days a week under the new schedule.
The existing contract, which expires in a year, will remain in place until both sides ratify a successor agreement.
(You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 762-7297 or email@example.com.)