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As a standoff between the Petaluma teachers’ union and the Petaluma City Schools district over pay raises and other contract changes drags into its third month, teachers are teaming up with parents to call for the district to resume negotiations on the terms they have requested.

In advance of a school board meeting Tuesday night, the Petaluma Federation of Teachers has planned a press conference where they plan to ask district administrators to return to the negotiating table and grant a union request to allow any of their members to sit in on the contract talks. Those planning to speak before the 6 p.m. board meeting in support of the Petaluma Federation of Teachers include the union’s chief negotiator, two concerned parents and Lisa Maldonado, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council.

Meanwhile, School Board President Troy Sanderson and Superintendent Steve Bolman maintain that they also want to resume negotiations as soon as possible and have been trying to do so since this summer.

“The district is very interested in getting back to negotiating table and resolving this so we can get 100 percent of our focus back on educating children,” Sanderson said.

Teachers and their allies plan to raise broader concerns about what they perceive as a lack of transparency and communication on the part of the district and the school board.

“They keep saying this is in the teachers’ court,” said Carrie Caudle, a teacher and chair of the union’s political education committee. “We’ve offered to meet, too. We’re ready. But we maintain we have a right to have observers present.”

Jackie Lebihan says she is one of a growing number of concerned parents. She recently started a petition on the website change.org asking the board to “deal openly and fairly with our teachers” by having district administrators return to the bargaining table. The petition also asks the school board to make greater efforts to gather input from teachers and parents by visiting schools on a daily basis and holding events specifically designed to gather feedback.

The petition, started Oct. 8, had 367 signatures early Monday evening.

“I’m concerned that there’s been a general lack of priority placed around our teachers,” she said.

Sanderson and Bolman responded to the concerns raised about the district’s responsiveness by saying the format of board meetings restricts them from engaging commentators in conversation during the meetings. Bolman added that he has replied by email to such concerns following the meeting.

He said he maintains an open-door policy where anyone can visit him. In addition, he said, he holds monthly meetings with parent and teacher representatives from each school campus.

Sanderson said, “We attempt to do those things they have asked for (in the petition). Could anybody do a better job? Always.” But, he went on, “I think members of the board work hard to get out, get in touch with parents, students and teachers whenever opportunities arise.”

In regard to negotiations, Sanderson said, the board’s role is to direct district staff how to proceed, not directly engage in talks. For that reason, he said, the types of conversations he can have with union members about their contracts is limited.

But, he said, the board has continually directed the district to return to the bargaining table — if teachers agree to the limits on who can be present.

On Monday night, the school board sent an email to teachers informing them of the district’s negotiating efforts so far. It stated that the district has offered to resume negotiations seven times since July. That includes two offers to allow as many as five union members to sit in on negotiations as observers.

“The District desires to get back to the negotiation table, but PFT continues to insist on a change in conditions,” the letter states. “This is not acceptable and is contrary to our understanding of the law.”

The union’s chief negotiator, teacher Sandra Larsen, replied that if teachers make a concession now, it will permanently limit how many union members can be present at future meetings, something they’re unwilling to do.

“The district only wants to meet under their conditions,” she said. “If we agree to those, we’ve agreed forever.”

The negotiations themselves center around about 15 “reopeners,” or adjustments to the union’s existing contract, which expires next June. The key issues include cost of living increases, or COLAs, and class-size reduction.

Earlier this year, Petaluma’s roughly 430 teachers sought a 7 percent COLA and the district in return offered a 2 percent raise. As of July, teachers had lowered their request to 4 percent and the district had raised its offer to 2.5 percent.

Teachers say the COLA is long overdue after seven years of no pay increases and rising employee costs for health care and pensions. PFT President Kim Sharp says the district has already lost teachers to nearby districts that pay better, as many teaches can no longer afford to live in Petaluma.

Administrators, meanwhile, have said they would have to dip into an already small budget reserve in order to provide such raises and that they must balance any salary increase with other school needs.

This summer, when talks came to a standstill over the issue of allowing teachers to sit in, administrators unsuccessfully sought state mediation. Teachers were so fed up by the process that they filed an unfair labor practice charge against the district, which is still pending.

In September, they also filed a grievance with the district regarding the district limiting what they say is their right to pass out informational fliers before school. The district contends that must be in class thirty minutes before school starts and cannot pass out leaflets of a “political or union nature” on school grounds. The union says they are appealing the matter and plan to take it to binding arbitration.

Tuesday’s school board meeting begins at 6 p.m. in the district office at 200 Douglas Street.

Staff Writer Jamie Hansen blogs about education at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach her at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jamiehansen.

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