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Santa Rosa City Schools will meet with teachers union representatives today in hopes of settling a labor dispute after teachers rejected a tentative contract agreement earlier this fall.

It’s unclear what kind of settlement, if any, they’ll reach after a fact finder assigned by the state Public Employees Relations Board recommended the district increase teacher salaries by 2 percent and health care benefits by $2,000, retroactive to last school year. District officials said the increases would cost more than $12 million over the next three years, which they say the cash-strapped district can’t afford, particularly at a time of declining enrollment in the wake of October’s wildfires.

“Even with our tentative agreement, we were going to have to make cuts to make it happen,” said Jenni Klose, the school board president.

Some teachers complained the tentative agreement doesn’t go far enough to resolve an “attract and retain” problem. Will Lyon, president of the Santa Rosa Teachers Association, which represents nearly 1,000 educators, said the 18-page fact-finding report released this past week validates their concerns the district is losing young teachers to neighboring districts that offer more competitive salaries and health care benefits.

While teachers in Sonoma County’s largest school district want to resolve the labor dispute and build on a good relationship formed with the district during the wildfires, Lyon said they likely won’t settle for anything less than what’s in the report.

“Teachers don’t want to strike,” he said. “(But) with this fact-finding report, it’s going to be really hard to go back.”

The union first approached the district about a new contract in January 2016. Talks reached an impasse last March and the two sides began mediation sessions in April.

In September, the two parties reached a tentative agreement, which called for a total of 1.5 percent salary increase over the next two years, plus a one-time 0.5 percent bonus, retroactive for the 2016-17 school year. Under the plan, teachers also would have received a total of $1,000 toward medical benefits and gotten to keep three days of paid training. In return, they would agree to continue supervising dances, sports events and other activities for up to 34 hours a year without pay.

Teachers rejected the deal by a 55-percent vote, with about two-thirds of the union membership casting ballots, Lyon said. The No. 1 reason was compensation, he said.

Matthew Davis, a Santa Rosa High School physics teacher, voted against the deal, interested in seeing the recommendations of an independent third party. On Wednesday before school board members went into a closed-door meeting to discuss their next steps, he urged them to bring back a better deal.

“It’s important that we attract the best people that we can,” he said. “To be ratifiable, it needs to be significantly better than the tentative contract.”

Klose said the district could impose the last offer it made before reaching an impasse — a one-day reduction in paid training and no salary or medical benefit increases — but that’s unlikely. She said they could bring back the tentative agreement or some other offer.

“I’m really hoping there’s a way we can work this out without it becoming a big battle,” Klose said.

Board member Ron Kristof said he wants to settle the labor dispute as quickly as possible, giving teachers “whatever we can.” He said teachers need continuity, especially after the fires.

“It’s about morale,” he said. “Teachers are confused. They want to focus on the kids.”

The tentative agreement would have cost the district $5.7 million, Kitamura said.

Klose said the district would be forced to lay off employees if it chose to adopt the non-binding recommendations, which she argued ultimately ignored the district’s budget woes. The school board cut $4.5 million from this year’s budget and planned to cut $7 million more over the next two years due to higher retirement contribution costs, lower than expected state funding and errors in past budgets.

“It’s a struggle for any school district to offer something right now without making cuts to a program. Santa Rosa isn’t any different,” said Mike Fine, CEO of Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, a state agency that provides financial guidance to school districts.

It’s unlikely County Superintendent Steve Herrington would allow for a more costly deal given the district’s finances, Klose said.

Herrington said his office doesn’t get involved in district collective bargaining agreements. If the district “accepts an agreement that puts the district in a financially negative situation,” he said his office then could step in. “Any additional ongoing costs to the district would put the district at high risk of fiscal insolvency, would not receive our approval, and would likely ensure a negative certification for the district,” he said in an email.

Lyon said the district should trim unnecessary programs and expenditures to boost teacher pay.

“The goal is to produce a destination district that attracts and retains teachers,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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