Petaluma teachers, district at impasse in contract talks

With a current labor agreement set to expire in June, the union representing Petaluma teachers has not met with district officials since July.|

With their labor agreement set to expire next summer, representatives for Petaluma City Schools and its teachers have yet to start negotiating a new contract. Instead, the two sides have not met since July, and have been engaged in a tense, six-month standoff over adjustments to the teachers’ current three-year agreement.

A state-appointed mediator has been brought in to resolve the stalemate, which has revolved around issues including a cost-of-living pay increase, reductions in class sizes and whether teachers should be allowed to observe negotiations directly.

If no deal is reached by the end of June, when the current contract expires, teachers would have the option to go on strike.

Sandra Larsen, chief negotiator for the Petaluma Federation of Teachers, said she could not recall a time in her more than two decades of instruction when the teachers’ contract ran out before a new one was approved.

“That’s uncharted waters for us,” she said. “I very much want this settled by June when our contract expires.”

The two sides came to loggerheads over the summer about 15 issues and have found little common ground, prompting the state Public Employment Relations Board to declare an impasse in talks and appoint a mediator.

“I’m hopeful we’re going to get past this and, once we get back to the table, be able to work like we have over the years, which is in the best interest of the teachers in the district,” said Superintendent Steve Bolman. He said he hoped to begin meeting with the mediator and teachers after winter break and come to a resolution on the current issues no later than April.

“Then we could roll right into negotiations for next year,” he said.

Larsen said, however, she was frustrated by what she sees as a lack of transparency on the district’s part regarding how much money is available for raises. Teachers have lost trust in the district, and that will need to be repaired before progress can be made on a new contract, she said.

Teachers, led by a negotiating team that is new as of last fall, have been particularly vocal and active around the issue this fall, demonstrating before school board meetings on several occasions, filing an unfair labor practice charge with the state and holding news conferences.

Last week, they teamed up with a local labor coalition called Jobs With Justice to hold a workers rights board hearing on the issue. It was held to give teachers a venue to voice concerns about perceived violations of their rights in the workplace, said Matt Myres, chairman of the workers rights board.

Bolman said he believes the district has been transparent and lived up to the promises it made to teachers, including reducing class size and restoring school days cut during the recession. The district was forced to spend down its reserves to do so, he said.

Both Bolman and union leaders said they did not think the stalled talks so far had affected students, with teachers remaining “professionals” throughout.

But Krista O’Connor, an English teacher at Petaluma High School, said the ongoing debate has strained some teachers’ willingness to participate in all the after-school meetings and other activities their principals ask them to attend.

“People are feeling a bit as though it’s a lot (of administrators) to ask of teachers with the circumstances (being) what they are,” she said. “Ultimately, teachers will continue to do everything they can to make the teaching experience a quality one, but they would like to see some acknowledgment and compensation and respect.”

The two sides first found themselves at odds last fall while negotiating another set of adjustments to the current contract, including the length of the school year and technology changes. Both sides agreed to bring in a state mediator, who helped them reach an agreement.

This school year, the main issue at stake is a cost-of-living adjustment for Petaluma’s roughly 430 teachers, who are asking for a 4 percent raise. They initially sought a 7 percent increase, saying it is long overdue after seven years of no raises and rising employee costs for health care and pensions.

The district first offered a ?2 percent increase, later raising that to 2.5 percent. Bolman contends that the district’s budget is still tight and that he must balance a salary increase for teachers with other school objectives.

Additionally, Bolman said Petaluma has not benefited much financially from the passage of the state tax hike known as Proposition 30, which has raised more money for schools. That’s because districts are now allocated extra money based on how many high-needs students they have. Petaluma has relatively few students considered high-needs, a classification that can include children from low-income families or in foster care, as well as English-language learners. At the same time, enrollment is dropping and expected to be nearly 200 students lower than first projected this year, meaning fewer dollars for the district.

But the two sides haven’t discussed the pay issue since the summer, when talks fell apart over a disagreement about whether teachers should be allowed observe meetings between the union and district negotiating teams. Teachers began sitting in on meetings last year when talks stalled and they wanted to see for themselves what the problems were.

School board president Troy Sanderson and Bolman have maintained this year that allowing observers to be present is “not acceptable and contrary to our understanding of the law.”

Despite that, they say, they have made many efforts to work with teachers, offering numerous times to return to the negotiating table and making two offers to allow as many as five union members to sit in on negotiations as observers.

Union leaders say the district has allowed unlimited teachers to observe in the past and that they would be giving up their right to an existing labor condition if they agreed to a limit or ban on observers. On the issue of pay, teachers contend district leaders could make room in the budget to accommodate a 4 percent raise if they wanted.

Bolman said the district has been forced to dip into reserves for the past three years and is set to do so again, by about $4.6 million, in 2014-15, just to provide teachers and other district employees a 2.5 percent pay increase and a reduction in class size.

Should the two sides come to an agreement, a pay raise would likely take effect retroactively for the year to date, Bolman said. He was negotiating Tuesday with the district’s classified, or non-teaching employees union, over similar issues, including a raise.

“We’ve never had a desire for them not to get an increase,” he said.

Sanderson, the school board president, said he was looking forward to the outcome of the state mediation process.

“I’m looking at it as a positive step,” he said. “I hope we’ll be able to resolve these issues once we’re back at the table.”

Staff Writer Jamie Hansen blogs about education at You can reach her at 521-5205 or On Twitter @jamiehansen.

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