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Striking west Sonoma County teachers reach contract agreement with district

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Leaders of a west Sonoma County teachers union reached a tentative agreement with the district Friday, ending a three-day strike that disrupted classes for more than 1,000 students.

About 110 teachers and staff in the West Sonoma County Teachers Association had been on the picket lines in Sebastopol and Forestville since Wednesday. The two sides met twice Friday — once in the morning and then again for about two hours in the afternoon — for the first round of bargaining since efforts to avert a strike at a four-hour meeting Tuesday fell short.

The tentative agreement reached Friday provides teachers with a 12% pay raise over three years, with just the third year contingent on voter approval of a proposed parcel tax for the March 2020 ballot, according to a news release from the district. The district had sought to make the last two years’ raises contingent on the ballot measure.

The current parcel tax of $48 per year expires in 2021. The district is exploring increasing that tax to $72 — a hike officials said would stave off cuts and provide an additional $500,000 in annual revenue.

Both sides also agreed to a 85/15 cost share of health benefits, a 5% increase in favor of the district from the current contract, which would go into effect only if the parcel tax passes in 2020.

Wage increases for psychologists, speech therapists and nurses also are included in the agreement.

“Everybody is feeling valued by the district,” said Brian Miller, bargaining chairman for the West Sonoma County Teachers Association. “We’re feeling empowered and we’re feeling ready to teach.”

Since the strike began, classrooms in the West County Union High School District have been mostly empty at Analy, El Molino and Laguna campuses, as well as a special education consortium. District officials estimated the strike caused losses of $85,000 each day because school funding is tied to attendance, with at least 85% of students absent from each school each day.

Teachers and students will return to classrooms Monday, now that the tentative agreement has been signed. The agreement will need to be ratified by union members and the school board, but representatives on both sides were confident that it would be approved.

“I’m just really happy to be moving forward and really encouraged by our collaboration of both the teachers and the community,” said Superintendent Toni Beal. “We’re going to need to collaborate moving forward and I’m looking forward to that. I’m so excited to have the kids back in the classroom and the teachers back teaching.”

Under the previous contract, teachers with no experience received an annual salary of $48,079, with a health benefits and life insurance package valued at $25,200 — the second-highest in Sonoma County, according to a district report.

A teacher who reaches the maximum step on the salary schedule would receive pay of $83,950 and the same benefits plan. Retirement benefits were not called out in the report.

The average salary for a California public schoolteacher in 2017-18 was $80,680, according to the state Department of Education. Averages for teachers in high school districts of a similar makeup to West County Union ranged from approximately $48,600 to $99,800 at the top step.

Beal previously said the district could not afford the three-year pay hike that would cost about $3.2  million unless the district established a new stream of revenue, or made another wave of cuts. She said Friday evening that what prompted the change in negotiations is a shift in focus — before, the district was approaching negotiations from a cost-cutting perspective, but now the district believes that, with the community’s help, it can find new revenue streams rather than making budget cuts.

Also different from past negotiations is that neither the union nor the district brought legal counsel to the bargaining table Friday, which Beal said made a “difference.” She said both sides noticed the discussion was more collaborative from past meetings, and based on that, the district is looking into either hiring different legal counsel or not using legal counsel in future negotiations.

The district will likely still have to make some cuts to afford the new contract, Beal said, though she said it was too early to identify where those cuts may occur.

“For the district, our goal today was to come to an agreement,” Beal said. “We’re going to probably have to make some cuts or some reductions based on the agreement we made today, but I think in the long run, it’s worth it to get the teachers ... and the students back in the school.”

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