Deal to end Cotati-Rohnert Park’s strike came after informal meeting of teacher representatives, district officials
When Lisa Bauman heard Wednesday night that Cotati-Rohnert Park school officials wanted to meet with her and fellow officers of the Rohnert Park Cotati Educators Association, she was skeptical.
After the fifth day of a teacher strike that began March 10, Bauman, first vice president of the labor group, was feeling more disillusioned than ever about stalled negotiations over pay raises for teachers.
Relations between two sides had soured, she said, and two bargaining sessions with a mediator had failed to bring the parties to a deal.
She saw little room for any breakthrough.
“I was really discouraged,” said Bauman, a biology teacher at Rancho Cotate High School.
Still, along with Emilie King, second vice president of the union, and Denise Tranfaglia, the union president, she agreed to a 2:30 p.m. meeting Thursday at the district offices on Burton Avenue.
Across the table in a conference room sat Superintendent Mayra Perez, who had requested the meeting, and Jen Hansen, the district’s human resources director. School board members Leffler Brown and Michelle Wing also were there.
What followed, according to interviews with Bauman, Tranfaglia and Perez, was an informal but frank discussion about both the plight of the union’s 320 members and the financial constraints district officials faced trying to meet the teachers’ demands for higher wages.
By the end of the discussion, about 45 minutes later, the parties were ready to reenter negotiations. And after a three-hour session, they struck a tentative deal.
It was a long time coming.
According to officials on both sides, it stemmed from a meeting unlike almost any other throughout eight months of bargaining, including half the time stuck in impasse: Neither the school district’s lawyer, nor the site representative for the California Teachers Association were present.
The change in approach to that discussion paved the way for the parties to find common ground and bring an end to the strike, according to union representatives and Perez, the district’s top administrator.
“It was us, without anybody else,” Perez said. “We had a positive conversation and we were able to work it out collaboratively.”
“The board (members) actually sitting down with all of the stakeholders and finally having the conversation was monumental,” Bauman said. “And it was key to solving this problem.”
Teacher demands, administrator concerns
The two sides were separated for weeks by a margin of 3% — the difference between the 6% ongoing wage increase the teachers wanted and the 3% the district said it could afford in a first-year raise.
The tentative agreement largely gave teachers what they wanted. The district agreed to provide a first-year raise of 6%. To save some cost, though, the district staggered the total over the current school year.
The total pay package gives teachers a 14.6% raise over three years. It will cost the school district an additional $7.9 million on teacher payroll, according to John Bartolome, chief business official for the district.
The district‘s current budget is $59 million, and the largest single expense is teacher pay and benefits.
District officials had balked at teachers’ demands throughout negotiations, saying it could not afford to give the same raises to its other unionized employees and its administrators.
If the pay hikes offered to teachers in the tentative agreement were extended to the district’s other two unions and administrators, it would cost about $12.6 million, Bartolome said.
District officials had previously said they would be forced to pivot immediately to workforce cuts to avoid a budget deficit. They did not say Friday how they would ease financial pressure from the accord with teachers.
Perez signaled that the district will be approaching its budget with renewed creativity, taking a hard look at its inflow and outgo to keep the district fiscally whole while continuing to pay teachers the agreed-upon raises.
“Now we can look at the budget and see where we need to shore up, tighten up,” she said.
Strike a financial blow for staff
The district’s 13 campuses Friday were animated with scenes of joy and celebration, a sharp contrast from the days of picket lines and protest signs.
Teachers celebrated the promise of consistent, ongoing wage increases and greeted their students with hugs.
“Like Christmas morning as a little kid,” Rancho Cotate biology teacher Chris Steffens said, describing seeing his students come through his classroom door.
The district, the third-largest in the county, with about 6,000 students, begins its weeklong spring break Monday. After that, school will resume as normal, the wage dispute settled after a ratification vote by union members expected to seal the deal.