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Rohnert Park, Cotati teachers just miss strike threshold in vote

With negotiations at an impasse since May, the union asked its 302 members — teachers, speech and language therapists, counselors, nurses and librarians — to empower leadership to use a potential strike as a bargaining tool.|

More than 8 out of 10 teachers in the Rohnert Park Cotati Educators Association have voted to give union leadership the authority to call a strike, a significant majority but not enough to meet the union’s threshold to approve a walkout.

With negotiations at an impasse since May, the union asked its 302 members — teachers, speech and language therapists, counselors, nurses and librarians — to empower leadership to use a potential strike as a bargaining tool. The proposal was supported by 82.7% of members, short of the 90% needed to authorize a strike.

The 90% standard is high for reason, union president Emilie King said.

“While 82.7% is a very large number, it doesn’t ensure that if we did strike we wouldn’t have people who would cross the picket line,” she said.

Approximately 17% of members, or 51 employees, opposed a strike threat.

“We still have a large majority, but we need to make sure we respect where our membership is at,” King said.

District superintendent Mayra Perez, who moved into that role July 1 after years with San Rafael City Schools, acknowledged that the large number of teachers willing to go on strike points to deep discontent.

“I guess I would love to know what people are thinking. I would want to wrap my head around what the feelings are around that,” she said.

The breakdown, after months of negotiations, was blamed on wages. Teachers last got a raise — a 2% increase — in 2018.

The district is the third-largest in Sonoma County, behind Santa Rosa and Petaluma, with approximately 6,000 students. The district’s general fund budget is $70.8 million, 80% of which goes to salaries and benefits, Perez said.

The starting salary in the district is approximately $45,500. At 24 years, teachers make, at minimum, $66,800 and max out at $88,260. The district typically spends approximately $19,500 per employee annually on health care, whereas the state average is $14,000, King said.

After negotiations had been stalled for months, the district in September offered a one-time, 1% bonus that would not be reflected in wages in perpetuity. That offer would mean $400 to $600 in a one-time payment to the average teacher, King said.

Perez, describing the current educational landscape as unprecedented, said she hoped to have a better understanding of what the financial future holds when Gov. Gavin Newsom unveils a state budget proposal in January.

But the news from Sacramento could be grim as California grapples with a dramatic surge in coronavirus cases and accompanying economic lockdowns. There were more than 1.4 million cases as of Friday and 20,500 deaths. On Thursday, the state set a one-day record of 220 deaths.

Sonoma County, for months stuck in the state’s most restrictive coronavirus tier, on Saturday joined five other Bay Area counties that have issued stay-home orders that further limit activities.

Still, Perez sounded a note of optimism.

“We need to value our teachers,” she said. “If the budget was better we would want to offer an increase.”

In the meantime, the coronavirus pandemic has made necessary bridge-building and typical modes of communication difficult, Perez said.

“For me, it’s really difficult to judge where people are,” she said. “We are in a virtual experience. I see people on screen and it’s so different from being in person and getting to know people.”

All but nine of the union’s 302 members participated in the strike vote. The fact that 83% of members are willing to walk out gives union negotiators strength, King said.

King said teachers will push for wages to be included as a line item in future budgets. The current impasse is over the 2019-20 contract; the contract for the current year is not yet on the table.

Members of the bargaining unit, as well as King, were scheduled to meet with district officials Friday. It was unclear how those talks, or the recent vote, would affect an as-yet unscheduled fact-finding hearing that was meant to push talks on the 2019-20 contract forward.

“We are going to ask them what they can do for ’19-20, if anything. If not, we will move on to ’20-21 and our big push will be ’Our membership has shown where we are at,’” King said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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