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Rincon Valley district teachers’ contract hits snag over district’s ability to pay for it

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Rincon Valley Unified School District leaders are now reversing course on a teachers’ contract they tentatively agreed to in February, after discovering an apparent mathematical error that brought into question whether the district’s salary offer is feasible.

District officials realized in April, nearly six weeks after signing the tentative agreement with Rincon Valley Union Teachers Association, that they had miscalculated cost projections for a 12% pay bump over three years that would create an additional $6.5 million in payroll expenses.

The Rincon Valley school board is holding a special session Thursday to assess the fallout, and attempt to mend relations with the union as the east Santa Rosa district’s 227 teachers and 3,200 students wrap up a spring semester upended by the coronavirus pandemic.

In the unlikely event the deal goes through, Superintendent Tracy Smith said it would create a $3 million unexpected expense that could deplete emergency reserves and force “massive cuts” to instructional programs and support services when school districts across California are preparing for a sharp decline in education funding this fall.

“It was shocking to me,” Smith, a first-year superintendent, said of the error she noted was discovered April 7 by the district’s new business manager. “We care about our employees, and our teachers are working harder than ever. This is a difficult situation.”

In a May 1 letter to the community, Smith said the district “only included one-time pay increases for teachers, not ongoing, cumulative salary increases for three years” when it was calculating the cost of the raises.

Assuming the school board rejects the tentative deal, the district is now offering a one-year contract that would provide a 5% annual pay bump and increased health care coverage. Negotiations on two subsequent years would start later when the budget effects of the coronavirus are clearer, Smith said.

The union that represents teachers at nine campuses in the second-largest Santa Rosa City Schools feeder district, views things differently.

Union President Samantha Tuor, who teaches eighth grade English and drama at Rincon Valley Charter School, said their members are paid 18% below the state average for teachers. This tentative agreement on a three-year pact was an effort to narrow that pay gap, and the district has the resources to make it happen, she said.

Union negotiators disputed a math mistake occurred, and accused the district of stalling the process by not advancing the tentative agreement to the Sonoma County Office of Education for review until April, and taking months to put it in front of the school board for a vote. The county education office said this week the district would have to convene an advisory committee to oversee an additional $2.5 million more in budget cuts if the original terms were adopted.

On Feb. 26, the district and union signed the tentative deal that would give teachers a 5% raise starting July 1, 4% next year and 3% in 2022. In March, after the coronavirus had forced school campuses to close and teachers were holding classes remotely, 99% of union members voted in favor of the pact.

“We were moving forward on our end with what we were supposed to be doing, but it didn’t seem like they were doing what they needed to do on their end,” Tuor said.

Part of the delay, which Smith said was not intentional, was the result of personnel changes at the district.

Allen Watts, who discovered the financial error in early April, took over as chief business officer in mid-March. He was the third business department head involved with contract negotiations since they first began in November. Watts did not respond to multiple messages this week seeking comment.

Watts succeeded the former deputy superintendent of business, Joe Pandolfo, who retired in the middle of the school year. Austin Creek Elementary teacher Mercedes Thompson, chief negotiator for the teachers’ union, said Pandolfo’s retirement occurred “suddenly” after he was removed from the district’s negotiating team in late 2019.

Attempts to reach Pandolfo for comment were unsuccessful. Steve Jorgensen, the former superintendent of Windsor and Cloverdale school districts, served as interim business official until Watts took over.

Both sides are scheduled to return to the bargaining table Friday, a day after the school board meeting, to continue negotiating a contract. If the board votes against the current salary terms on Thursday, Rincon Valley teachers at least want the district to negate the agreement publicly so they take ownership of a mistake.

“(The district and school board) need to finish the process,” Tuor said. “You need to vote this down and own up for your error. Then we will go back to the table and talk about it.”

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

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