Striking Cotati-Rohnert Park teachers see support from district families in meager attendance; walkout set to continue Friday

Of nearly 6,000 students enrolled in the school district, just 12% attended class Thursday, officials said.|

The first day of a teacher strike in Cotati-Rohnert Park unfolded in a sea of red apparel and picketing outside of mostly empty campuses, as teachers and community supporters intensified calls for administrators to meet demands for pay raises.

All but 11 members of the 323-person Rohnert Park-Cotati Educators Association left their classrooms on strike Thursday. The ripple effect on student attendance was even more stark: 731 students — about 12% of the 6,000 students enrolled in the district — attended school.

Parents, in interviews and social media comments, confirmed that for many, keeping their students home from school or excusing them to join the picket lines amounted to a show of support for the striking educators.

And that is how many teachers took it.

“I think that shows that our community is behind us,” said Emilie King, a teacher at Technology High School and union vice president. “We know this is such a burden on our families and we are so grateful for them for standing with us and showing their support. It feels amazing.”

No breakthrough came by the end of Thursday and the strike was set to continue Friday.

At Evergreen Elementary School, Lupe Hatfield and her two children, both fourth graders at the school, joined teachers on the picket line and passed out doughnuts.

“It’s another disruption in their education, but we’re here to support our teachers and the pay increase they deserve,” Lupe said.

Across the district’s 13 campuses, teachers and supporters formed lines and walked the sidewalks, equipped with bullhorns and displaying colorful signs, waving to passing motorists who honked as they drove by. Chants and music kept spirits high even as frustration over the labor dispute and effect on schools was evident.

“We have reached out to trustees. We’ve asked (administrators) what’s going to happen,” King said. “We don’t know what they were doing, but we’re out here and we are open to hearing from them.”

Superintendent Mayra Perez, meanwhile, said the district was waiting for the union to restart talks.

“The board has not changed their position so we’re eager to hear from RPCEA, so we can get back to the table,” Perez said.

Teachers’ demands for higher pay were carried on signs and shouted from picket lines. District offers have not gone far enough to address what their ranks say is a persistent lag in their wages compared to other districts in the state.

For eight months, the two sides have been negotiating to reach a three-year collective bargaining agreement. They have been at impasse since last fall but are on the same page about pay hikes in two of the three years. The district has offered 5% next school year and a cost-of-living increase of 3.6% in ‘23-’24. Those numbers come straight from a recommendation made by an independent fact-finder.

But the fact-finder recommended a 6% ongoing hike in the first year. The district, citing projections of a multimillion dollar deficit under that future pay scale, has offered 3% ongoing and a 3% one-time bonus.

Chris Steffens, who teaches AP biology and biology at Rancho Cotate High School said a 6% wage increase in the first year is “absolutely necessary.”

In 2020, average pay in Cotati-Rohnert Park was 20% lower than the average teacher in a unified school district. Across California, that average was $83,901, and in Cotati-Rohnert Park, it was $63,878.

As the science department chair, Steffens said he knows of three newly hired teachers who rely on extended family for financial support to live in Sonoma County.

“I am scared to death that these highly educated, highly qualified, motivated and well-liked teachers will go to other school districts which pay higher salaries,” Steffens said. “Quite frankly, I wouldn't blame them. That is why I am out here (striking) for as long as it takes to get the deal which the fact-finding report recommended.”

Perez, in a letter sent to families late Wednesday, said the district could not afford to offer teachers a 6% pay increase in the first year.

If it were to do so for teachers, and also its other two other two groups of unionized employees and administrators, it would face a deficit of $2.3 million by next school year, Perez said in the letter.

“If we had (the money) to give, we would,” Perez said.

Teachers pushed back on the district’s assertions Thursday, saying officials were not being fully transparent by only discussing plans in which they would draw from the district reserves.

“What we’ve been asking for them all along is for them to really reprioritize their budget and look at where they’re maybe not spending in the best way that they can,” said Lisa Bauman, a vice president for RPCEA. “I’m not saying it’s not going to cost them some money, but I’m not convinced that that’s the only place to get it.”

The district’s budget is nearly $60 million this year, and the largest cost is personnel: teachers are the largest group of employees and make up the bulk of the cost.

Most campuses operated on a shortened schedule Thursday. Monte Vista Elementary was closed Thursday due to insufficient staffing. It was set to reopen for a short day Friday.

“Things went well,” Perez said. “There was some really good reading lessons and art projects, so the kids were engaged. It was safe.”

At Evergreen Elementary, where 535 students are enrolled, only about 50 students were present in the midmorning, coloring and eating snacks in the multipurpose room under supervision of school and district administrators.

At one point, a group of children who were attending school and children picketing on the sidewalk began waving and yelling back and forth.

“You’re so lucky!,” yelled a small girl outside the classroom to her schoolmates on the sidewalk. “We miss you!” one child yelled back.

“We have parents, kids, teachers ― a whole community here to support us,” said Kim Stainer, a fourth grade teacher at Evergreen. “I’m also completely heartbroken that I’m not in the classroom with my kids. I’ve been on the verge of tears several times.”

Other allies who joined the picket line in support of educators included dozens of members of the Service Employees International Union, another district labor union, the Teamsters, members of the National Letter Carriers Association and the Santa Rosa Teachers Association.

“It’s been encouraging to see the amount of local support,” said Linnea Leroux, a seventh and eighth grade history teacher at Lawrence E. Jones Middle School.

At Technology High School and Rancho Cotate High, several students walked alongside their teachers in support.

“I assume this means our robotics assignment is pushed back?” said Ian Glynn-Wilson, a junior at Tech High, to teacher Ginny Mason as they walked the picket line. Mason nodded.

Glynn-Wilson, who uses gender neutral pronouns, said they thought district officials were being overly stingy with offers to increase teacher pay.

“Just the fact that we’re out here proves it,” they said.

At Rancho Cotate, sophomore Dayanna Rios was mostly stoic as she walked, holding her sign that read “Report the Board to the 'STOP IT' app!”

The line was a reference to the app students in several local school districts are directed to use to report threats to school safety.

“I'm here to support them just as much as they support us,” Rios said of the teachers. If the strike was to continue Friday — which union officials confirmed late Thursday afternoon — Rios said she planned to be back in line that morning.

“I'm going to be here until they give them a raise,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay. Reach Staff Writer Alana Minkler at 707-526-8511 or alana.minkler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @alana_minkler.

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.  

Alana Minkler

Breaking news & general assignment reporter, The Press Democrat

The world is filled with stories that inspire compassion, wonder, laughs and even tears. As a Press Democrat reporter covering breaking news, tribes and youth, it’s my goal to give others a voice to share these stories.

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