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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.”

Wage increases and the cost of health benefits are the primary sticking points in the current Santa Rosa negotiations. The three-year contract ends in June.

While teachers say the atmosphere is untenable, they have not conducted work slowdowns, which aren’t permitted, union President Amy Stern said.

“But there’s nothing that says we can’t work beyond our contracted hours,” she said. “The community needs to be educated on that.”

Such “working to contract” could mean teachers refusing to put in extra hours before or after school or on their days off to help students, which many say they have done for years.

“Teachers are very loyal and dedicated people,” Stern said. “We really care about students and their families. We don’t want to short our kids.”

At one of the recent board meetings, several trustees expressed support for teachers, some saying they agreed the teachers were due raises.

Jeye said she stands by that: “I believe our teachers deserve a raise and they deserve decent health care benefits. That’s what we’re working on getting them.”

But negotiations have progressed unevenly.

In nine sessions since Sept. 19, several proposals have been sent back and forth, Stern said. An Oct. 21 union proposal was met with a district reply on Jan. 28, she said.

This month, they have met three times, although two of those sessions lasted less than 10 minutes.

A district study produced in November acknowledged that Santa Rosa teachers’ benefits lag well behind other comparable districts’ in the region, while their wages were comparable.

That imbalance began about 13 years ago, when teachers negotiated for the district to convert what it was paying toward their health care costs to their base salaries.

Teachers believed they could buy health coverage cheaper on their own or would benefit from a spouse’s health coverage. The base pay also increased a teacher’s long-term retirement earnings.

But in the past decade, health care costs have skyrocketed, and teachers now want the district to begin paying for health care again. They also argue that lack of health benefits makes it difficult to attract and retain quality teachers.

The district’s study showed the statewide average salary in comparable districts for the most experienced teachers is just under $84,000. Regional comparable districts pay about $78,000.

Santa Rosa teachers’ top-step wages are just under $81,000.

But because most districts also pay for health coverage, Santa Rosa teachers fall to the bottom of the 11 districts examined when total compensation packages that include benefits are analyzed.

Statewide, districts pay an average of $13,000 toward health coverage per teacher, and about $12,000 in the region.

Santa Rosa City Schools pays about $1,440 for dental coverage and life insurance for SRTA members.

Teachers want an overall 5 percent bump, with 2 percent, or about $3,500 annually, going toward health care costs.

The district originally proposed a 2 percent salary raise retroactive to July 1 and an additional $1,000 a year toward medical costs beginning this July. That proposal has increased to $1,500.

The union’s proposal would cost $5,575,000, according to the district. The district’s proposal would cost less than half of that.

In the most recent meetings this month, the district also proposed a 90-minute workday extension on 30 Mondays during the school year at $40 an hour compensation.

“Their offer was a way they thought they could give us more money — and it’s a creative way to try to get the money to us. I appreciate that, but it won’t work,” Stern said.

“They wanted to tell us where to go and what to do without us having any say-so.”

The union rejected the offer.

“We said no. We shouldn’t have to work more to earn more money,” Stern said.

Teachers haven’t had a raise since 2007, she said, although they have received the contracted step wage increases for years of experience.

Now that both sides acknowledge an impasse, the state will assign a mediator within a few weeks, Lea said.

Eventually, the mediator will meet with both sides separately and be the go-between to try to hammer out a compromise.

However, a mediator’s recommendations aren’t binding, Stern said.

“When that fails miserably, we’ll go to fact-finding,” Stern said. “The district will have to open their books. And then the state will determine what’s there and what’s not there.”

Part of the disagreement, Lea said, is over what state-allocated money can be spent on salaries and benefits.

“We’re not agreeing on what we’re able to do financially,” he said.

There are three pots of money from which school districts fund operations. Some funds come with state strings attached and cannot be used to pay for annual salaries and long-term health and retirement benefits.

The teachers argue that a case can be made for shuffling some of that money to pay teachers more.

“You can use the supplemental funding if you can prove that there is a need for it,” Stern said. “Under attracting and retaining high-quality teachers, they can take money from the supplemental funds and put it into our salaries. The district is saying they can’t.”

Jeye said she hopes a mediator can find a solution to that disagreement.

“I do believe that there is some confusion about the proper use of supplemental funds, and that’s what we need to come to an agreement on,” she said.

Mary Hastings, a teacher for 15 years, said the district and board may be underestimating how discontented teachers are with the district’s contract proposals.

“The district thinks we’re going to back down,” she said. “They don’t understand how upset we are. If anything, we’re getting more unified by the minute.”

The SRTA represents about 880 teachers, psychologists, counselors and therapists in the city’s elementary, middle and high schools. Two others unions representing classified employees and custodial employees would receive the same wage and benefit increases the SRTA agrees to, Stern said.

She said that while the current negotiations have gotten heated, she expects an agreement will be hammered out before it reaches a crisis point.

“I expect it to go to fact-finding and end at fact-finding,” she said. “I don’t expect it to go to strike.”

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

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