Santa Rosa school district, teachers union reach tentative contract agreement

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The Santa Rosa school district and its teachers union reached a tentative contract agreement, following five months of tense negotiations and bitter relations.

The agreement reached Wednesday calls for a 3 percent raise beginning this July, and a 4 percent raise the following year, according to officials at Santa Rosa City Schools, Sonoma County’s largest district. The deal, which needs to be approved by the 961-member Santa Rosa Teachers Association and then the school board, also includes a $1,500 increase in medical benefits over the next two years, bringing it to a total of $6,800 in annual medical contributions for teachers.

“It’s a good agreement in that we’re able to provide teachers an offer that is competitive, and I do believe our teachers should have salaries that are competitive with other districts,” Superintendent Diann Kitamura said.

The 16,000-student district began negotiations with the union in November over parts of the contract. In February, the union filed a request for impasse to the state Public Employment Relations Board, but it was denied.

District officials say the district faced budget challenges due to declining enrollment, impacts from the 2017 wildfires, inadequate state funding and increases in special education and pension costs. Empowered by nationwide protests, including a teacher strike in nearby Oakland a month ago, the Santa Rosa teachers union continued to push for higher pay and smaller classroom sizes over the course of the negotiations.

The district’s average teacher salary — $72,738 — is below the state average of $80,680.

The labor group had a strike planning meeting scheduled for Thursday, but it was canceled. A town hall meeting instead was held at Santa Rosa High School for teachers to learn more about the agreement, which also sets limits of 28 students or less in all high school math classes and ninth-grade English and science.

“I’m very happy about [the agreement],” said Will Lyon, union president. “Nobody wanted to go on strike.”

At the previous bargaining session early this month, the district offered a 5.5 percent salary increase over the next two years, but the union had countered, asking for a 10 percent bump.

Lyon said the district struggles to attract and retain teachers. Forty percent of the teachers in the union have been with the district five years or less.

“This is a win-win. This is going to help teachers, and it’s going to help the district solve some of its systemic problems,” Lyon said. “It goes forward, not backward.”

Teachers plan to vote on the tentative agreement in time for the April 24 school board meeting. If they ratify it, the deal then will go before the school board for a vote.

If approved, the agreement will cost $14.4 million over two years and come out of the district’s general fund, according to Rick Edson, assistant superintendent of business services.

The general fund is now projected to be negative $5.3 million in three years, Kitamura said.

However, Lyons said, “I’m not too worried about that because budgets are adjustable. There’s wiggle room to move things around.”

Fifty full-time employee positions were reduced this year, and Kitamura expects to reduce at least 25 positions next school year through layoffs and attrition. She also plans to work with the Sonoma County Office of Education to advocate for increased funding from the state before Gov. Gavin Newsom enacts his budget in June.

“We will continue to look at budget expenditures and revenue and tighten things,” Kitamura said.

She and Lyons both expressed relief on Thursday.

Tensions were exacerbated throughout negotiations amid a union campaign accusing district officials of retaliating against teachers and counselors for speaking out against policies, including a new controversial requirement for students to take college-prep classes to graduate, starting with this year’s freshmen. District officials have vehemently denied the accusation.

“We do have work to do on our relationships,” Lyon said.

“This helps a lot,” he said about the tentative agreement. “It doesn’t solve the personnel issue, but we don’t want that tension to prevent this from passing.”

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.

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