Report criticizes Petaluma school board, outgoing superintendent

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A group that supports workers’ rights has issued a report highly critical of the Petaluma city school board and its superintendent, who are locked in contentious contract negotiations with the teachers union.

The North Bay Workers’ Rights Board, part of the North Bay Jobs with Justice coalition of 17 labor and community groups, heard testimony from several union representatives, teachers, parents and students in a December hearing on teacher complaints. Its members interviewed Superintendent Steve Bolman and unsuccessfully sought to interview school board members, committee chairman Matt Myres said.

The group released its findings and recommendations Thursday evening in a meeting attended by about 75 Petaluma teachers, parents and community organizers. No district managers or board members were present, though they were invited, Myres said.

The report, perhaps not surprisingly, takes the side of the Petaluma Federation of Teachers in virtually all of its members’ complaints.

Board President Mike Baddeley said he appreciates the time and effort the board put into making the report, but said it was inaccurate in some places and unrealistic in its budget assumptions.

“My general sense was that it was preconceived in that it was … created by a labor-supported group that is impaneled by people that are pro-labor and pro-union,” he said. “To the extent that a document like this maybe makes a new suggestion or looks at programs in different way, it could be helpful.”

Contract negotiations between teachers and the district are at an impasse, declared in July after communication broke down over several issues, including salary increases, teacher input into district decision-making and whether observers should be allowed to sit in on negotiations. A federal mediator has stepped in to help improve dialogue.

Teachers are seeking a 4 percent wage hike after not having received cost-of-living increases since 2007 while agreeing to furlough days to help the district meet its budget needs during the economic downturn. The district has offered a 2.5 percent increase. If no agreement is reached by the end of June, when the current contract expires, teachers would have the option to strike.

The report concluded the district should “prioritize a modest raise for teachers of at least the 4 percent the teachers are requesting,” without any offsetting reductions to other benefits.

Baddeley said teachers’ salaries haven’t been stagnant in the past seven years, though, saying about 90 percent have received experience-based or augmented-education wage increases. The district’s expenditures have been more than its revenue for the past two years and will be again this year, he said.

Myres said most of the problems stem from a breakdown of relationships. Teachers don’t trust management and management doesn’t get along well with the union leadership, representatives on both sides said.

The report recommends the district allow non-negotiators to observe the negotiations. In the past, some non-committee members have been allowed in, but large numbers of watchers can make the process unwieldy and awkward when dealing with legal issues, Baddeley said.

“We felt the distrust there was paramount,” Myres said. “It outweighed the concerns of having people come in. To allow the teachers to observe seems to have been past practice.”

Members of the teachers union have said they have felt excluded, their input devalued and that the bargaining and budgeting process should be as transparent as possible.

Board member Sheri Chlebowski said the report didn’t break any new ground or offer concrete solutions.

“It just seemed very general to me,” she said. “ ‘You need to work on your relationships.’ Of course we do.”

Both sides said the report and the hiring of a new superintendent ­— Bolman this week announced he is retiring at the end of the school year — may be an opportunity to reset negotiations and rebuild relationships.

“It’s a time for opportunities and to get people excited,” Chlebowski said. “But we need to come together. We need to work together.

“I want us to come together as a family, and work together as a family.”

You can reach Lori A. Carter at 521-5470 or On Twitter @loriacarter.

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