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