High school teachers in west Sonoma County to strike after talks stall

More than 100 west Sonoma County high school teachers and staff plan to go on strike this week after about a year of negotiations have failed to result in a new contract, leaving the district and its educators far apart on future pay and other terms.

The West Sonoma County Teachers Association, representing 110 teachers and staff at Analy, El Molino and Laguna high schools and a special education consortium, will begin their strike Wednesday morning, said Lily Smedshammer, president of the association.

Their message, she said, is that west county teacher salaries lag behind the state average and other nearby districts, a discrepancy the group sees as risking an exodus of talented educators. They’re asking the West Sonoma County Union High School District for pay increases totaling 12% over three years with no change to the current cap on health benefits, she said.

“We cannot continue to fall behind and become a district where teachers come and go for better opportunities,” said Smedshammer, who teaches Spanish and manages Analy’s English Learner program. “That does not create a high-quality learning environment for our west Sonoma County teenagers.”

The district, which serves about 1,800 students near Sebastopol, west Santa Rosa, Forestville and other parts of west county, proposes increasing salaries roughly 6% over three years. It cannot afford to meet the full request from teachers without significant budget cuts to offset the additional expenses, Superintendent Toni Beal wrote in a letter published on the district’s website. The district’s offer asks the teachers to make concessions on medical benefits by agreeing to a yearly per person spending cap starting in October 2020 of $19,500.

“The current offer from the district is the best offer we can make while continuing to provide quality educational programs and services while maintaining fiscal solvency,” wrote Beal, who could not be reached for comment Monday, which was Veterans Day, a federal holiday.

The west county strike plans follow Forestville teachers’ four-day walkout in August and a one-day strike conducted by Petaluma teachers in 2017, as well as larger strikes this year in Los Angeles, Oakland and Sacramento, as educators across California have publicly pressed districts to raise their pay during a sustained period of economic growth.

Santa Rosa teachers in March were mulling a strike of their own before reaching a two-year deal with Santa Rosa City Schools. According to the union, several west county “feeder districts” recently secured salary hikes of their own.

The west Sonoma County strike will have no fixed duration and no bargaining sessions are scheduled, Smedshammer said.

School will continue during the strike because the district has hired substitute teachers, and food and transportation services will be provided throughout the strike, according to Beal’s letter.

“We are hopeful that we can come to an agreement with the teachers soon,” Beal wrote.

The strike is set to follow an Oct. 25 third-party report that sided with the union’s call for average salary increases of 4% per year for a three-year contract while leaning toward the district’s position on health care benefits.

That report was submitted by a neutral fact-finder selected by the state Public Employment Relations Board.

The fact-finder worked with both an attorney for the district and a union representative to resolve an impasse stemming from contract negotiations that began late last year.

The report cites the Sonoma County Office of Education in saying that the district has been in “qualified” status - meaning that it “may not be able to meet its financial obligations” - for the past year, the current year, and the next year. The union contended the district has been in qualified status for eight years out of the past decade, “only surpassed by the school districts in Los Angeles and Oakland,” the report said.

The fact-finder also noted that the district is dealing with declining average daily attendance, decreasing student enrollment and rising special education costs, while the union feels its members are struggling to afford the high cost of living in Sonoma County.

The union’s analysis arguing for raises centers on the average teacher salary in the district being about $69,000, below the average California teacher salary of about $81,000 and the average high school teacher salary of $87,000, according to the report.

The district, meanwhile, disputes the union’s claim that it has a problem with recruitment or retention, and its own analysis shows teacher salaries and benefits that rival or are competitive with those offered by about a dozen comparable districts with high schools.

“Neither party’s salary and health insurance contribution studies fully proved their positions,” the report said. “Nonetheless, the union’s comparison of recent multi-year salary settlements for teachers in the region demonstrated that other districts facing similar macroeconomic challenges as the district ... managed to offer significant salary increases.”

But the fact-finder favored the district’s proposed medical benefits cap, finding that the district’s “health insurance obligations are too high” and that “to increase teacher salaries, the district’s proposal to cap health insurance premiums could still maintain competitive health insurance benefits.”

Before any walkout, a local judge will decide whether special-education teachers will be allowed to join the strike, following a legal motion filed on the district’s behalf. It is due to be considered Tuesday morning in Sonoma County Superior Court.

Paul Boylan, a Davis-based attorney working for the district, said the goal of the legal action was to ensure continued education for the district’s most vulnerable students.

Smedshammer said she perceived the order as a way to decrease strike-line numbers. She said the district had previously filed an unfair labor practices charge against the union and also was attempting to block them from assembling near school property.

“They’re wanting to weaken our strike,” she said. “They’re wanting our strike to be less relevant to our workplace.”

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