95% of Sonoma Valley Unified School District teachers authorize strike due to budget impasse

The announcement was made after mediation sessions with the school district were unsuccessful.|

More than 95% of the members of Valley of the Moon Teachers Association voted to strike, if needed, after impasse mediation over salary negotiations with Sonoma Valley Union School District was unsuccessful.

The VMTA made the announcement in a news release issued on Tuesday, referring to impasse mediation on Aug. 8 and Sept. 16. Later in the day, some 50 teachers showed up at the SVUSD Board of Trustees meeting to support the VMTA’s position. The union and SVUSD have been some $2.9 million apart as they negotiate increasing teacher salaries and benefits for the 2022-23 and 2023-24 academic years.

While revenues and funds have increased from $58.6 million in 2017-18 to $79.9 million 2022-23, the portion of the budget that pays teachers’ salaries has decreased from 37.06% to 33.75% over the same period, the news release states.

“With a catastrophic teacher shortage facing our profession and after two horrific years of pandemic that were met with sacrifice and flexibility, the district’s actions toward teachers are unnecessary and disrespectful,” said Bernadette Weissman, VMTA bargaining chair and a history teacher at Sonoma Valley High School, in the news release.

The VMTA also provided statistics from the California of Education, which show that in 2020-21, the average statewide teacher salary was $85,856 and $15,696 was available per student, while the average SVUSD teacher salary was $74,043 and $18,722 was available per student.

“This alone tells you that the priorities in the district are upside down and that those closest to the students are prioritized last,” said Laura Montessero, VMTA co-president and a reading intervention teacher at Sassarini Elementary School, in a news release issued on Tuesday. “This data shows that the district does not value our teachers like the rest of California.”

By comparison, in a Sonoma County district that is similar in size to SVUSD, Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District, the average teacher pay was $68,438 and $13,470 was available per student, though comparisons solely focusing on these statistics have limited value because districts’ funding sources and other characteristics vary.

“A straight statistical comparison can be useful, but it doesn’t tell the whole story,” said John Laughlin, associate superintendent of human resources for the Sonoma County Office of Education.

In a message to parents posted on Aug. 23 on ParentSquare, a platform that connects schools with families, SVUSD asserted that it has offered a 12.2% base salary increase over 2022-23 and 2023-24, consisting of a 7.2% hike this school year and a 5% raise next year.

The message states that with these two increases, the average teacher salary would be $91,935, the beginning teacher salary would be $58,557 and the highest base pay would be $103,959. So, by 2023-24, the average teacher salary at SVUSD would be higher than the state average in 2020-21.

VMTA’s bargaining team responded to the ParentSquare post in a message to the Index-Tribune on Aug. 28, saying that the statement that the district is currently offering 7.2% and 5% is misleading.

“The district is offering 5% and 5%,” VMTA responded. “Additionally, there are no structural changes to the pay schedule that will cost, in their estimate, 2.2%, but teachers with 20 or more years of experience will not benefit from the restructuring.”

SVUSD’s message says that VMTA’s negotiating team has requested an increase of 18.7%, consisting of a 9.5% salary increase and 2.2% for salary restructuring, amounting to totals of 11.7% in 2022-23 and 7.0% in 2023-24.

“This is an increase of approximately $2.9 million of ongoing expense over the district offer, which would drive immediate, significant reductions,” SUVD’s message states. “Current projections indicate that if the district were to approve this increase without reductions, it would be financially insolvent in three years.”

In their statement, VMTA negotiators countered that SVUSD receives 124% of the average state funding but its teachers receive only 86% of the average state pay. They say this is especially problematic because Sonoma County Is one of the least affordable counties in the state in which to live.

“The money is there for teachers’ salaries — the district and the board are choosing to spend the money elsewhere.” the statement reads, adding that SVUSD spends 7% less than the average on teachers’ wages (in their total budget) but 7% more than the average on expenses such as consultants and lawyers.

Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at daniel.johnson@sonomanews.com.

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