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Healdsburg students, teachers protest for better wages, benefits

Instead of heading for their fourth-period classes on Wednesday morning, about 150 Healdsburg High School students headed for the exits to support their teachers’ calls for better wages and benefits.

Students staged a 10 a.m. walkout in solidarity with the Healdsburg Area Teachers Association, which is at an impasse in wage and benefit negotiations with the Healdsburg Unified School District. Despite being asked the previous day by school officials not to go through with the protest, students marched through the city for about 90 minutes, brandishing placards and hailing passing cars, many of which honked in approval.

The walkout, and a teachers union rally in downtown Healdsburg later that evening, comes after teachers called for negotiations with the district in August. Last month, the two sides met to discuss wages and benefits and the association asked for a 6% raise per year over three years. The district proposed a 4% raise for one year, later upping their offer by 0.5%.

“At this point, it just pushed us to our limits,” said the association’s chief negotiator, Karen Reynolds, who teaches third grade at Healdsburg Fitch Mountain Elementary School. “We have teachers that have a second job to make ends meet. ... Teachers leave because they can’t afford to stay here.”

Superintendent Chris Vanden Heuvel defended the one-year proposal by explaining that the district isn’t legally permitted to negotiate a new contract period until the current contract ends on June 30, 2021.

Ever Flores, president of the teachers association, said the California Teachers Association’s legal team is looking into that issue.

Still, the teachers association argued that the district has the funding to increase wages. While the district receives 134% of the state average funding per pupil, it pays its teachers just 85% of the California average, Flores said.

“This is one of the wealthier districts in the county and the state,” said ninth grade class president Jackson Boaz, who helped organize the student walkout. “The teachers are just asking for the (state) average salary, at the end of three years.”

Most of his teachers, he said, can’t afford to live in Healdsburg.

One such teacher is Eric O’Connor, who teaches 12th grade civics and economics at Healdsburg High School and lives in Petaluma. He said his healthcare costs have risen astronomically over the last few years, adding that about 78% of his net pay goes to his rent.

“This is a second career (for me),” he said, adding that he used to practice law in New York City before he moved to Sonoma County to teach. “I’m trying to do good, and I can’t afford it.”

O’Connor and Reynolds joined dozens of their colleagues at the rally in downtown Healdsburg on Wednesday evening. Nearly 100 people met up at City Hall at 5 p.m., chanting phrases such as, “Hey hey, ho ho, teachers’ wages are way too low.”

About an hour later, they packed into the small room at City Hall where the school board meeting was being held. Several of them spoke during public comment, urging the board to come back to the negotiation table with a better offer.

“Every single day, teachers stand up for their students,” Boaz said to the school board members during public comment. “Today, we decided to stand up for them, and it’s about time you did the same.”

The association previously agreed to a contract that included a 3% raise last year and a 3.5% raise this year, but Flores said that was only because negotiators were told the district didn’t have enough money. When the accounting for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school year became public, though, Flores said the association learned that the district had underestimated its income by roughly $3 million each year.

“The reason we’ve been a little forceful this time around is we believe the district has withheld funds that should have been allocated for teachers and students,” Flores said.

The superintendent, however, said the district’s budgetary processes are very transparent and there’s no way for them to “hide money.” He said that projecting property tax revenue - which is the district’s primary revenue source - is very difficult to do three years in advance and can lead to discrepancies.

The two sides are planning to return to the negotiation table next week, and Vanden Heuvel said he hoped it would be a “positive session.” He added that he felt the student walkout and rally the teachers association held later that evening “accelerated so quickly” - usually, he said, negotiations continue for months or even a year before hitting this crisis point, whereas the district and the teachers association have only had one meeting to discuss wages.

“We want to do everything we can to be among the highest paying districts in the county,” he said. “Obviously, that’s going to take some time ... but we are working diligently to make sure that happens, and we’re really grateful for everything our teachers do.”

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