Santa Rosa City Schools teachers approved a labor deal Thursday, averting a potential strike in the county’s largest school district.

Teachers will see their salaries increase by 1 percent starting Jan. 1, followed by another 1.5 percent a year later. Their health care benefits also will increase by $2,800 over the next two years under the new contract agreement, which teachers approved by a 56-44 percent vote after nearly two years of negotiations, said Jenni Klose, school board president.

“It’s a relief,” Klose said about resolving the labor dispute. “The board was anxious for us to settle this contract and move forward. We have too much work to do.”

During the seven days ending Thursday that Santa Rosa Teachers Association members had to vote on the contract, it was unclear whether it would be approved, as they had rejected an earlier deal in October, said Will Lyon, president of the association. The group represents nearly 1,000 educators.

“It was a nail-biter,” he said of the vote. “I thought the other one would pass, but I was wrong.”

He said 63 percent of the membership cast ballots. A third of them were submitted within the past two days.

“People were really chewing on it,” Lyon said. “It was by no means an easy choice.”

He said some members didn’t feel the compensation was enough, especially after a fact finder assigned by the state Public Employees Relations Board recommended late last month the district increase teacher salaries by 2 percent and health care benefits by $2,000, retroactive to last school year.

Santa Rosa City Schools officials argued the cash-strapped district couldn’t afford to adopt the recommendations, especially at a time of budget problems and declining enrollment following October’s wildfires. The district has already cut $4.5 million from this year’s budget and plans to cut $7 million more over the next two years because of higher retirement contribution costs, lower-than-expected state funding and errors in past budgets.

It would have cost the district $12 million to implement the fact finder’s suggestions, far more than the $6.9 million the new contract will cost.

Lyon said the new contract offers better concessions than the proposal rejected in October, which called for $1,000 toward medical benefits and a total 1.5 percent salary increase over the next two years, plus a one-time 0.5 percent bonus retroactive to the 2016-17 school year. Despite the contract approval, Lyon said the district still has more work to do to attract young teachers and keep them from going to neighboring districts that provide better salary and medical benefit packages.

The new contract, he said, is “not enough to solve the problem, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

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