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The Santa Rosa teachers union has voted to declare an impasse in contract negotiations with the Santa Rosa City Schools district over pay and benefits disputes.

The move could force the sides to bring in a mediator to resolve disagreements and help craft a new contract for about 800 teachers in Sonoma County’s largest school district.

The move toward impasse is the second in Sonoma County for teachers and their management. Petaluma school teachers and the district reached an impasse in July and a federal mediator was brought in.

The high-profile labor disputes come at a time when the economy is rebounding and workers seek to recover financial losses they endured during the recession.

Santa Rosa Teachers Association President Amy Stern said in an email that after three months of “untenable negotiations,” union leadership voted Friday night to declare an impasse and insist on mediation.

Assistant Superintendent Jason Lea said the district hadn’t received official word from the union about the vote.

Either side in a dispute can declare an impasse, which includes a formal submission to the Public Employment Relations Board. The board then contacts the other side and determines if talks are truly stalemated and if so, begins a mediation process.

“The district anticipated having another meeting with the teachers association,” Lea said.

But he said bringing in a third party is not necessarily an indication that relationships are irreparably damaged, adding that mediation can be beneficial.

In Petaluma, a mediator helped get the sides talking again, but negotiations haven’t yielded any agreements yet. The Petaluma Federation of Teachers recently sought support from the pro-labor Workers Rights Board, which recommended the district agree to at least a 4 percent hike in wages, which is what the teachers are seeking. Petaluma City Schools is offering 2.5 percent increases.

Santa Rosa’s union leadership “felt obligated to take this step on behalf of its membership after the SRCS negotiators offered less than half of what was originally requested by the teachers in October,” Stern said.

The most contentious issue is the cost of health insurance.

For the past decade, teachers have received higher base wages in lieu of paid health coverage.

About 10 or 11 years ago, Lea said, the parties agreed to move money the district was paying toward benefits into salaries. That allowed teachers to buy medical coverage of their own choosing or keep the money if they were covered by a spouse’s policy, for example. The added base pay also raises the teachers’ pension calculations.

The district pays about $1,440 per teacher annually for dental coverage and life insurance.

But as medical costs have risen, teachers have struggled to purchase affordable coverage on their own, Stern said. Many teachers pay more than $900 per month for individual medical plans, she said.

The district offered to cover a maximum of $84 a month toward medical insurance, according to the union. “The Santa Rosa Teachers Association deems this unacceptable,” Stern said.

Lea said the district proposed a 2 percent salary raise retroactive to July 1, an additional $1,000 a year toward medical costs beginning July 1 this year and a willingness to change health care vendors as proposed by the union.

That would have cost the district $2.18 million. The union’s proposal of a 5 percent total compensation hike would cost $5.57 million.

A benefits review commissioned by the district in November concluded that teacher salaries are competitive compared with other local and regional districts, but medical benefits are not.

To balance the discrepancy, the report recommended several options, including reducing teacher numbers through attrition — essentially increasing class sizes by two to four students — and using that savings to pay for medical coverage.

Both Santa Rosa and Petaluma teachers’ unions argue that with increased stability in state funding and more state money coming into local districts, schools can afford to bump up teacher compensation.

But district officials say much of that money is legally restricted and can’t be used for ongoing employee compensation.

For a link to a 2014 Santa Rosa City Schools' summary of teachers compensation, click here.

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

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