Deal to end Cotati-Rohnert Park’s strike came after informal meeting of teacher representatives, district officials

An informal but frank discussion between the two sides Thursday afternoon paved the way for more productive negotiations that ended in a deal hours later. Here’s how it came to be.|

What’s in the Cotati-Rohnert Park tentative agreement?

The tentative deal that union and district officials struck Thursday is a three-year agreement that will provide members of the Rohnert Park Cotati Educators Association with staggered raises in the first two years.

This year, the raises reach 6%, with 3% applied retroactively from last July to December 2021, and another 3% beginning this January extending through June.

From July to December 2022, another 3% is added, and January to June 2023, 2%.

An estimated 3.6% increase will come in 2023-2024.

Teachers will also receive a $2,000 off-schedule bonus this year and a $1,000 bonus next year.

The parties also agreed to include two emergency days in the work-year calendar without additional compensation if they are needed. The extra-duty rate was increased to $40 per hour and the service credit for new hires was increased to 20 years.

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.

District officials and teachers expressed relief the dispute will not put a damper on the break, allowing staff to rest. Strain from the pandemic, the rising cost of living in the North Bay and frustration over how the district has managed teacher pay all factored into their decision to strike.

The resulting upheaval for teachers and the larger school community has just begun to settle.

It had a personal cost for teachers and classified staff in the district who stood by their side in a sympathy strike. As a group, they forfeited hundreds of thousands of dollars in wages while walking the picket line.

That financial hit will continue to affect the district’s most vulnerable teachers and staff.

Megan Kedge was struggling to make ends meet as a kindergarten teacher and single mom even before the wage dispute became a strike.

Kedge, who has four years of prior experience at a private school, earns $47,323 a year as a first-year teacher at Richard Crane Elementary.

Her monthly expenses, the largest of which include $1,900 in rent, about $600 for groceries and the $530 cost of child care for her son and daughter after they get out of school, eat up that salary fast.

Kedge, 37, has borrowed money from family members frequently to keep her family afloat.

“I’m definitely going to be faced with a major hardship as far as the loss of pay during these days,” she said.

Some financial help is available, through a GoFundMe started March 2 by a community member. It had raised more than $28,000 Friday. RPCEA strike team members will begin distribution of the funds to members in need soon.

“It’s just such an awesome feeling to know your community supports you in that way,” Kedge said.

A new direction

Thursday’s breakthrough was unexpected.

Communication between the district and the union deteriorated as the strike wore on. The district repeatedly made the case that it could not afford to offer teachers and other staff the kind of raises teachers were requesting.

Meanwhile, the union brought forth suggestions to cut costs or increase revenues to make the raises more feasible.

In the two school board meetings that followed the union’s March 7 announcement of its intention to strike, teachers and community members repeatedly called for school board trustees to show more decisive action to end the labor dispute.

But for days, bargaining sessions produced no deal.

Then Perez asked union officials to meet.

The participation of Brown and Wing in the informal meeting Thursday was a welcome change, union officials said. Board members have met with union representatives only once before, according to teachers.

Brown and Wing did not respond to voicemails requesting comment Friday.

Bauman credited the community for helping move things forward.

“It’s because we had that community support and they really let the district and board know they had our back,” she said. “That made it happen.”

One parent, Heather Bettencourt, started a petition calling for all but one board member and the superintendent to resign if they did not fix the crisis.

After Thursday’s news about the tentative agreement, Bettencourt amended the language of the petition, saying she and others plan to “continue to push forward in finding a way to seek justice.”

“Our children, educators, and community suffered from irreversible mental anguish that will never be forgotten,” she said.

Bauman said she hoped the labor action will solidify a stronger role for teachers in crafting Cotati-Rohnert Park’s budget priorities.

“That is my hope: that we plan early, sit down and have a dialogue about how to plan for teachers in your budget every year,” she said. “We really want to shift the paradigm of how we have been doing things in the past.”

And if it could have ripple effects beyond Cotati-Rohnert Park, even better, she said.

“We really hope our experience this last week helps other districts find a solution before anybody has to strike,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

What’s in the Cotati-Rohnert Park tentative agreement?

The tentative deal that union and district officials struck Thursday is a three-year agreement that will provide members of the Rohnert Park Cotati Educators Association with staggered raises in the first two years.

This year, the raises reach 6%, with 3% applied retroactively from last July to December 2021, and another 3% beginning this January extending through June.

From July to December 2022, another 3% is added, and January to June 2023, 2%.

An estimated 3.6% increase will come in 2023-2024.

Teachers will also receive a $2,000 off-schedule bonus this year and a $1,000 bonus next year.

The parties also agreed to include two emergency days in the work-year calendar without additional compensation if they are needed. The extra-duty rate was increased to $40 per hour and the service credit for new hires was increased to 20 years.

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

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