Contract negotiations between the Santa Rosa Teachers Association and the district have deteriorated to the point they’ve hit a wall, prompting teachers to ratchet up a public campaign to seek community support.
Leadership for the 880-member union previously had said they’d reached an impasse and in February sought mediation from the state Public Employment Relations Board. But the board concluded there still was room for movement and asked the sides to return to the bargaining table.
After three unproductive negotiating sessions this month, both sides acknowledged on Monday they are at a stalemate.
“The last negotiating session lasted exactly eight minutes,” union chief Amy Stern said Thursday. The previous one lasted six minutes.
“Things have gotten pretty contentious,” she said.
On Friday, about 150 teachers and their supporters rallied in front of Santa Rosa High School, waving signs and urging support from parents picking up their children and the public at large.
District officials maintain relations are still positive and that the impasse is even a positive step.
Assistant Superintendent Jason Lea characterized the decision to seek mediation as just another step in the free mediation process the state provides for public agencies during negotiations with its labor unions.
“I’m hopeful that we are going to reach an agreement,” he said. “We’re going to continue to do the best we can to work through the process.”
Several board members either declined to comment for this article or did not return messages.
Board President Donna Jeye portrayed the declaration of an impasse as an encouraging sign.
“We see going to impasse as a really good, positive thing,” she said. “We need somebody to help us work the process through. I see it as we’ve agreed to disagree and we’re saying we need help to get past that.”
But teachers disagree, increasingly bringing the previously behind-closed-doors negotiations into the public eye at school board meetings, in the classroom and on the street corner. For each of the past three board meetings, more than 200 teachers have packed the room.
Waving signs reading “5% is fair” and “Willing to strike” and singing the Tom Petty song “I Won’t Back Down,” the teachers drew supportive honks from many passing vehicles Friday.
“It’s important because we’ve had so little increase in compensation,” longtime history teacher Art Horner said. “We’ve asked for a fair number: 5 percent.”
Friday’s demonstration comes on the heels of three Santa Rosa City Schools board of trustees meetings that were packed to overflowing with teachers, counselors, psychologists and other staff who demanded wage increases and more input in how the district spends its money.
Teachers — like police, firefighters and transportation workers throughout Sonoma County and the Bay Area — argue they bore the brunt of budget cuts during the recession, absorbing layoffs, furloughs and pay reductions.
They say that now the economy is rebounding, the wage hits they took need to be restored.
Horner, who has taught in the district since 1987, said discontent among teachers is the highest he’s seen it.
In 1980, resentment and poor communication led to an eight-week strike by Santa Rosa teachers, who picketed for weeks in front of schools during that winter.
Dan Evans, the former union president, said teachers don’t feel valued: “We know money is being spent right and left, but it’s not being prioritized for teachers, especially for health care.”