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West Sonoma County teachers, district fail to reach last-minute agreement to avert strike

A last-ditch effort to avoid a teachers strike at three west Sonoma County high schools failed Tuesday after more than four hours of negotiations, clearing the way for picket lines Wednesday that could keep more than 100 educators outside their classrooms until a deal for a new contract is reached.

The West Sonoma County Union High School District offered to grant teachers’ demands for a 12% raise over three years, but only if the pay increase was tied to a new parcel tax that school board members have been exploring for the 2020 ballot, according to officials familiar with the negotiations.

Both sides found common ground on health benefits, said Brian Miller, bargaining chairman for the West Sonoma County Teachers Association, which represents 110 teachers and staff at Analy, El Molino and Laguna high schools and a special education consortium.

However, the district held firm on marrying the salary increases for 2019-20 and 2020-21 to the ballot measure, resulting in a deadlock.

“If they would lift that contingency, done deal,” said Miller, a math teacher at Analy High. “It’s really close.”

Teachers at the three high schools say they are underpaid when compared to the average salaries around the state, and face financial hardships due the region’s high cost of living. That has made it more difficult to attract and retain educators.

The district says it cannot afford the 12% salary request without making significant budget cuts that would hurt the education and services provided to students. In a statement, district Superintendent Toni Beal said the offer to tie pay raises to a parcel tax was “a good faith effort to support our students and teachers and move forward as a unified group.”

The union was open to the contingency for 2020-21, Miller said, but not for the two preceding years in the three-year contract sought by teachers, which includes 2018-19.

The union also called for protections for seventh-?period classes, a popular elective and Advanced Placement period, which school board officials have discussed cutting as a cost-saving measure, he said.

The strike was scheduled to take place at all three campuses beginning at 7 a.m. Wednesday, said Lily Smedshammer, president of the association. Staff members from all three schools will assemble for a rally at Sebastopol Plaza at 1 p.m., with other labor organizations and supporters expected to attend, she said.

Although she was heartened by the back and forth negotiations Tuesday, Smedshammer said she was unsure how long the strike will last if an agreement cannot be reached after the first day.

“We’re going to have to see where this goes,” Smedshammer said.

A third-party mediator was brought in after talks stalled and an impasse was declared in April. The fact-finder released a report last month that sided with the union on the ?12% salary increase but aligned with the district on lower health care obligations.

The union conceded Tuesday on health benefits, Miller said.

Schools are going to operate as planned, according to a letter Beal published on the district’s website last week.

Beal said teachers will lose their daily pay as well as a day of retirement service credit for each day the they are on the picket line. The district could also be impacted if students do not attend class, since funding is tied to attendance.

“Schools will be open tomorrow and we look forward to our next face-to-face meeting with the teacher’s union,” Beal said.

The walkout is the second by Sonoma County teachers in four months. In August, Forestville teachers went on strike for four days before reaching a three-year contract.

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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