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Sonoma County teachers rally in Sebastopol to gain public support for salary increases

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Beth Trivunovic has been teaching kindergarten at Gravenstein Elementary School for seven years. As the sole earner for her family, she’s made sacrifices to continue living in Sonoma County and working as a schoolteacher.

To pay the bills, Trivunovic has to cut corners to make ends meet on her teacher’s salary of about $66,000 a year.

“To pay rent you cash in your life savings, life insurance and do whatever else to make it,” she said.

Trivunovic wore red and joined more than 100 others who rallied Thursday afternoon in downtown Sebastopol to gain public support for higher teacher pay in west county public schools and countywide.

Union leaders, teachers and other supporters drew attention to the pay gap between local teachers’ wages and their counterparts in other areas of California amid the backdrop of ongoing teacher contract negotiations at many county public school districts.

The average annual pay for teachers working in school districts in the western part of the county was about $66,000 in 2018, about $14,000 less than the state average teachers’ salary, according to the most recent salary report by the California Department of Education.

For example, teachers in the Forestville Union School District earn on average 33 percent less than the state average teacher salary of about $80,000 annually, according to the salary report. Teachers in the Gravenstein Union School District were paid 16 percent less a year than average California teachers.

Brian Miller has been teaching at Analy High School in Sebastopol for four years and is a lead union negotiator for the West Sonoma County Teachers Association. Miller, along with a group of other west county teachers, organized Thursday’s rally.

“I do not think people understand how bad teachers really have it here,” said Miller, who held a sign at the demonstration that read: “You can’t put students first if you put teachers last.”

Miller said, “How is it good for students to have financially overwhelmed teachers who can’t afford their living expenses or are working two jobs?”

Superintendents from Sebastopol, Forestville and Gravenstein school districts say they support their teachers in asking for more state funding for Sonoma County schools, but avoided speaking about teacher pay.

“What we are all in agreement on is that we feel the state needs to be funding on a more acceptable level,” said Phyllis Parisi, superintendent of Forestville Union School District.

Sebastopol Union School District Superintendent Linda Irving said she wore red Thursday in solidarity with her teachers and she, too, supports their efforts to receive more financial support from the state.

“Our schools are 44th in the nation in per-child funding and what we are not seeing is full and fair funding in education,” Irving said.

Twin Hills Teachers Association President Miriam Silver said the rally is a significant event because traditionally schools in west county keep to themselves and the teachers do not often unify to express their viewpoints on critical issues.

“A lot of us are negotiating salaries with our districts and in a lot of ways we are inspired by what teachers in Los Angeles and across the country have done,” Silver said. “We are also continuously mortified and freaked out that people can’t afford to live here, especially new and young teachers.”

For Will Lyon, the union president for Santa Rosa City Schools, his goal for attending the rally was to discuss his district’s ongoing contract negotiations, which includes asking administrators for wage increases and a $2,000 increase in contribution to teachers’ health insurance.

In Santa Rosa schools, the county’s largest school district, teachers earn about $73,000 a year on average, $7,000 less than the California average, according to the state report on teachers’ salaries. On Jan. 1, 2018, the district’s teachers received a salary increase of 1 percent, followed by another 1.5 percent pay increase last month, plus a boost of $2,800 in health care benefits in 2018 and 2019.

Still, Lyon said the Santa Rosa district is further behind the state average for what it contributes each year to teachers’ health benefits. The district contributes about $5,300 annually to teachers’ health care plans, he said, which is $8,000 less than the state average, according to the state report.

Santa Rosa schools are struggling to recruit and retain newer teachers because wages are too low and they struggle to afford to live in the area, despite their enthusiasm to teach, he said.

Contracts negotiations between the teachers’ union and administrators at Santa Rosa schools are at an impasse, Lyon said.

Similarly, teachers’ unions and several west county school districts are engaged in contract talks and waiting to hear whether their administrators will accept their pay and benefit proposals or if they’ll have to go back to the bargaining table.

One district out west, Oak Grove Union School District, has reached a tentative agreement on a three-year pact that would boost annual teachers’ pay 16 to 19 percent over three years, Silver said.

During Thursday’s rally, Forestville Union Elementary School kindergarten teacher Talia Kilburn said she and other teachers are prepared to take drastic steps in the coming months if school districts don’t meet the contract demands of the teachers’ unions.

“If our negotiations don’t work out, then we strike,” Kilburn said.

You can reach Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas at 707-521-5337 or alexandria.bordas@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @CrossingBordas.

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