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West Sonoma County teachers go on strike

The first bell rang at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday, but dozens of Analy High School teachers and staff were outside on the picket line, circling a Main Street crosswalk with signs as they chanted for fair pay on the first day of a teachers strike.

“That first bell felt like a small little victory,” said Alex Wilson, a math teacher, as about 100 students began classes inside. “We’ve seen very minimal kids coming in. The first bell rings, it feels real.”

Wednesday’s protest was the culmination of a nearly yearlong process to negotiate a three-year contract for teachers in the West Sonoma County Union High School District, which includes Analy, El Molino and Laguna high schools, as well as a special education consortium.

More than 100 teachers and staff who serve communities in Sebastopol, Forestville and other parts of west county mobilized after efforts to salvage a deal and avert a strike Tuesday were unsuccessful, despite progress in multiple areas during the four-hour meeting, according to negotiators.

By the end of the school day on Wednesday, neither side had made contact to try and return to the bargaining table. Lily Smedshammer, president of the West Sonoma County Teachers Association, said they expect to be on the picket line again Thursday.

Classrooms across the district were mostly empty Wednesday. Numerous students joined their teachers on the picket line in support, and district officials said about 91% of students were absent out of the more than 1,100 student body at Analy. At the neighboring continuation campus, Laguna High, 85% of its 78 students did not show up.

Analy seniors Nia Palanty, 18, and Kevin Rodriguez, 17, said the decision to skip school was a simple one. District officials said nearly 30 substitute teachers were hired to oversee various project-based learning initiatives at each campus, but Rodriguez said he only wanted to be instructed by teachers he trusted.

“I don’t want to sit and learn from someone who’s just going to be here for a day instead of someone I have a connection with,” Rodriguez said. “The teachers I grew up with are out here (on the picket line) trying to live.”

At El Molino High School in Forestville, 85% of its 529 students missed school, according to the district. Since school funding is based on attendance, Superintendent Toni Beal said the district estimated a loss of $85,000.

At 1 p.m., about 350 people gathered for a rally at Sebastopol Plaza where several union leaders and Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins spoke before the crowd marched to the district office on Johnson Street.

The union is seeking a 12% raise over three years. Teachers say they face financial hardships because of the region’s high cost of living, and that the district can afford to offer more competitive salaries to attract and retain talented educators.

In Tuesday’s negotiations, district officials were prepared to double their previous offer and fulfill the 12% pay bump, but only if it was tied to an education parcel tax that the school board intends to place on the March 2020 ballot.

Union leaders left negotiations saying they were unwilling to agree to the offer unless two of the three increases are guaranteed outside of the ballot box. The district’s offer only guaranteed one year.

The two sides did find common ground on health benefits.

Beal, who is in her second year as the top schools official, said the district cannot afford a raise that costs approximately $3.2 ?million unless there is additional revenue or another wave of budget cuts.

The district slashed $1.2 ?million of its now $26 million budget in the 2017-18 school year.

“It’s next to impossible for a teacher to live here on what we pay them,” Beal said during an interview Wednesday. “So we would love to give them more money. I used to be a high school teacher, and I know how hard teachers work.”

The enrollment at its campuses is also declining, Beal said, and that means the district’s funding is following suit. Analy, for example, has lost nearly 100 ?students since 2016-17.

That has made the parcel tax a vital lifeline, Beal said. The current assessment of $48 per year expires in 2021, and the district is exploring a $72 ?ask for next year’s ballot, which would provide an estimated $500,000 in annual revenue, Beal said.

If teachers support the new parcel tax as a part of the district’s upcoming campaign, it will create a united front that voters can get behind, she said.

The decision to strike may have weighed most heavily on teachers in the special education consortium that serves area students ages K-12 with special needs.

The district filed a motion with the Sonoma County Superior Court that would have prevented special education teachers from participating in the strike when concerns arose that they didn’t have enough qualified stand-ins, said Davis-based attorney Paul Boylan, who is representing the district.

The union viewed it as an intimidation tactic to diminish their numbers, but the district maintained it was to ensure continuity of care for its most vulnerable students. The district withdrew the injunction once they found enough substitutes, Boylan said.

Some parents kept their children home, but many did send them to school, said Amanda Reece, a speech pathologist for the consortium.

Several assistant teachers who are classified staff under a separate contract crossed the picket line to care for the students, but expressed their support for the strike, she said.

“It was a pickle for me, definitely. But ultimately, I felt like it was better for (my students) in the long run,” if I have a livable wage and can stay here, said Adam Alcorn, who teaches the severely handicapped day class at Analy.

Sonoma County’s Teacher of the Year for 2019, Katya Robinson, donned her red protest apparel and picketed with her fellow special education teachers.

“After getting that award and now picketing, I guess this is what teachers do nowadays,” Robinson said. “Oakland just stopped, Forestville just got done with their strike. I hate to say it, but I think it might be the new norm.”

Several supporters from labor unions also joined the line, including the Teamsters, California Teachers Association and North Bay Jobs with Justice.

Tom Woods, a business agent for the local Teamsters chapter, said he was there to ensure workers from other unions did not provide services to the school, like UPS or garbage collectors, for example.

“We’re supporting the teachers,” Woods said. “None of our union trucks are going to do any business across the picket line.”

Beal said she had mixed feelings about the strike, but the pervasive feeling was sadness and disappointment that a deal was not reached this week.

Both sides were close Tuesday, and as she waits for the next trip to the bargaining table, Beal’s thoughts have already shifted ahead to the mending that will need to be done when the strike is over.

“I was really hoping we weren’t going to end up with a strike,” she said. “I truly believe there’s no winner in a strike. It’s going to take a while for our community to recover from this.”

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

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