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Many Petaluma teachers are already in their classrooms preparing for the start of the school year on Aug. 19. But while their lesson plans may be taking shape, some terms of their own employment contract, including their salary for the coming year, are less certain.

This summer, contract negotiations over 15 items — including pay raises and class-size reduction — stalled, causing the Petaluma City Schools District to seek state mediation and leaving teachers so fed up they recently filed an unfair labor practice charge against the district.

“We feel this is our avenue to take,” Petaluma Federation of Teachers President Kim Sharp, who teaches English at Casa Grande High School, said of the unfair labor charge. The teachers’ union alleges that district negotiators violated labor law by not allowing teachers to sit in on contract negotiations and by not providing information the union requested.

Superintendent Steve Bolman maintains that his team has provided much of the requested information and that it’s the union, not the district, that is in the wrong by allowing teachers to sit in on talks that have previously been limited to appointed negotiating teams.

Teachers are planning a demonstration at the next school board meeting but say the negotiations won’t affect the start of the school year.

Petaluma’s roughly 430 teachers initially sought a 7 percent raise and are now seeking a 4 percent pay increase. They say the raise is long overdue after seven years of no increases and rising employee costs for health care and pensions. Some teachers are forced to work second and third jobs or move out of the area to make ends meet, Sharp said.

The district initially offered a 2 percent increase and now has a 2.5 percent raise on the table. Administrators contend that the district’s budget is still tight and that it must balance a salary increase for teachers with other school objectives.

“The goal was to achieve class-size reduction and for the first time in years provide a true cost of living increase,” Bolman said. Both sides would like to reduce class sizes, though they disagree by how much. The district has gone ahead with hiring the equivalent of 9.6 new teachers whose presence will enable smaller classes this year.

The standoff marks the second time in two years that the district and teachers have stalled at the negotiating table over “reopeners,” or proposed changes to the teachers’ existing contract. That deal expires June 2015. Last fall, both sides declared an impasse and brought in a state mediator, who helped reach an agreement on issues including the length of the school year and technology changes.

But this year, the main dispute is over pay raises, and the Petaluma district is not alone in wrestling with the issue. Tax hikes on income and sales approved by California voters in 2012 — known as Proposition 30 — helped stabilize school budgets, and now teachers around the state are asking for raises. They say the increases are needed after teachers agreed to years of concessions during the recession.

Last year, Novato teachers negotiated a pay increase that equaled an average raise of 3.25 percent.

“It’s not unusual to be asking for a large increase after so many years without any raises,” said Terry Elverum of the California Federation of Teachers, which represents unions from north of the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border. “This has been a long drought in terms of salaries.”

Petaluma teachers didn’t take an outright pay cut during the recession, though they agreed to what they considered an equivalent concession: unpaid furloughs that peaked at eight days a year. Last year was the first without those furloughs, but teachers say that move just brought their salaries back to what they received in 2007-08.

Petaluma district administrators this spring compared teacher salaries with five districts it deems similar: Santa Rosa City Schools, Novato Unified, Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified, Windsor Unified and Sonoma Valley Unified. They found Petaluma teachers received salaries that were slightly above the average, Bolman said.

The starting salary for a beginning teacher without any special training or credentials at Petaluma City Schools is $39,566, with wages rising in steps based on years and increased training up to a maximum of $75,911.

Teachers contend Petaluma City Schools has ample money in reserves and that administrators habitually underestimate how much revenue they will receive.

“We’re not asking for the moon, for more than what we feel the district can cover,” said Sandra Larsen, chief negotiator for the teachers’ union.

But Bolman said even the 2.5 percent raise coupled with reduced class sizes will require deficit spending. Management employees have tentatively agreed to contract adjustments including a 2.5 percent pay raise, Bolman said. Bolman will also be receiving a 2.5 percent pay increase this year. However, the classified employees’ union on Monday rejected a similar tentative agreement, sending both sides back to the negotiating table.

“We’ll be spending all the additional money we’re getting (from the state) plus some of our reserves to accomplish this,” he said.

Bolman said the district’s reserves were at 8.3 percent of the overall budget — less than the state average of more than 15 percent.

The two sides haven’t gotten any closer to agreeing on teacher pay. Yet it was a disagreement over allowing teachers to attend negotiations as observers that actually stalled talks this summer.

The union started inviting employees to the negotiations last year, Sharp said. Employees had questions about why the two sides were headed to an impasse and union negotiators decided to let the teachers sit in and see for themselves. At one summer meeting last year, as many as 30 teachers were present, Sharp said. The district didn’t object.

“That’s the reason why we’re a little baffled as to why this is now such an issue, why they didn’t argue it before,” she said. “We feel if (teachers) want to come and see the process, they have the right to do so.”

Bolman said that last year’s meeting was different because it was mainly an information-sharing session where no substantial negotiations took place.

“It wasn’t a typical negotiation session,” he said, adding that the teachers are already adequately represented by their appointed negotiating team.

Both sides say they want to resume negotiations, but differ on the ground rules. The teachers’ union wants its members to be able to sit in; the school district wants to restrict the sessions to designated negotiators.

“We’ve always been willing to sit down with the negotiating team,” Bolman said.

With neither side budging, the district in July asked the state board overseeing collective bargaining for public employees to declare an impasse in negotiations and appoint a mediator, but the board denied the request.

The district has until Sept. 3 to file a response to the teachers’ unfair labor practice charge. A decision on the matter could take months or longer, teachers acknowledged.

Meanwhile, they’re planning to demonstrate at the Aug. 19 school board meeting to pressure the district to resume negotiations with observing teachers present.

Sharp said, “My team and I just really want to get back to the table and settle this.”

You can reach Staff Writer Jamie Hansen at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jamiehansen.

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