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Forestville teachers call strike three days before school starts

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Forestville public school teachers walked off the job Monday with three days left before students arrive to start the school year, still unable to reach a contract agreement despite last-ditch negotiations over pay and health care contributions.

Faculty representatives said a half-percent raise in the third year of a proposed three-year contract — or about $6,000 total — is all that stands between them and a settlement with the Forestville Union School District.

But the district said it has stretched as far as it can to accommodate the demands of its 16 kindergarten through eighth grade teachers — despite wages that lag about one-third behind the state average of $80,680.

The two sides have agreed to 5% raises for two years. The union wants 3% in the third. District representatives said they won’t pay more than 2.5%.

The district also has agreed to increase health care contributions, though they would remain below the state average of $13,276 a year, a union representative said.

School board member Josh Nultemeier, part of the district negotiating team, said in a news release, “The district can barely afford what is being offered.”

But Forestville Teachers Association President Gina Graziano, a music and movement teacher at the school, said the union request for the third year doesn’t even meet the projected rise in the cost of living. It’s also less than what the district has spent on lawyers and consultants trying to fend off teachers’ legitimate effort to negotiate what they deserve, she said.

“We’ve said time and time again, we just want a living wage for Sonoma County,” she said.

Negotiations have been underway for two years, almost the length of the last contract, which expired in June.

The district’s ability to pay more in salaries from reserve funds has been in dispute throughout, with union members citing substantial unrestricted funds from which they say the district should be able to find enough money to pay teachers adequately.

Sixth grade teacher Ryan Strauss, lead negotiator for the teachers association, says the district has many times more than it’s required to keep set aside in reserves.

But the district has said that money is actually earmarked for necessary expenditures.

In her 2019-20 budget message, chief business official, Diane Hughes, said the district had budgeted 12.6% in economic reserves this year — less than the 15% she said the board had directed.

Requests for comment from the district office were not answered except for the news release from new Superintendent Renee Semik.

About 300 children are expected to start the school year Thursday at the Forestville School & Academy. Teachers on strike said the district had been recruiting substitute teachers all summer, just in case.

Teachers were to report to work Monday, but they instead donned red union shirts and grabbed picket signs for a rally in front of the Gravenstein Highway campus.

Joined by dozens of community supporters and teachers from other parts of the county, they chanted slogans like, “Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Teachers wages are way too low,” striding back and forth soliciting honks from passersby despite the increasingly sweltering sun.

For most of the morning, the prospect of a settlement remained real, as negotiators met behind closed doors after months of impasse to try one more time to reach an agreement.

When that discussion concluded without agreement after more than five hours, it was an emotional blow to many of the teachers, including Graziano, who became too emotional to answer questions. Dissolving in tears, she described herself as “unraveling.”

Said Strauss, “I didn’t know what to do for an hour. I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry. I wanted to punch something.”

He said he is committed to the strike, which is to continue as long as necessary.

But for a one-day work stoppage called by Petaluma City Schools teachers in 2017, the Forestville strike appears to be the first one in Sonoma County since 1980, at least for teachers affiliated with the California Teachers Association, according to CTA staffer Eric Olson Fernandez.

Teachers in Sonoma Valley walked out for two days that year, and then, months later, Santa Rosa City Schools teachers went on strike for a legendary 36 days before returning to the negotiating table.

The Forestville dispute reflects growing concern about the gap between teachers’ pay and the cost of living in Sonoma County, particularly among some of the smaller, rural districts.

In the nearby Twin Hills Union School District, representatives for the roughly 70 teachers at four schools had come to an agreement with the rural Sebastopol district after 10 months of negotiations through the help of a mediator, said Miriam Silver, president of the teachers association. The deal, which still requires ratification by union members and approval of the school board, calls for a 5% retroactive pay raise for 2018-19, with 4.5% this year.

“We are pleased to find an agreement just before the kids start on Thursday, so now we can all focus on what we care most about, the kids,” Silver said in an email.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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