West Sonoma Union High School District (WSUHSD) teachers are meeting today with district managers in hopes of reaching a fair agreement and avoid going on strike tomorrow, November 13. Talks will be challenging as district management filed two legal actions in the last week. From the start, West Sonoma County Teachers Association leaders said that the WSUHSD’s lawsuit seeking to bar Special Education professionals from striking was a sham.
District managers conceded as much when it backed off late Monday afternoon from its much-publicized threat to appear in court on this (Tuesday) morning on an emergency basis to request an urgent injunction against the Union. WSUHSD has not, however, dismissed either of its two lawsuits against the WSCTA. In addition to its suit seeking to enjoin Special Education professionals from striking, district management is also suing the Union over what it speculates WSCTA strikers might do during a strike.
Both suits are meritless, and are clearly attempts to harass the teachers and intimidate employees, says Lily Smedshammer, WSCTA president. WSCTA today filed unfair practice charges against the district management for its unlawful harassment and intimidation.
WSCTA educators say they want a fair contract that helps recruit and retain the best teachers for their students. “Many of our best teachers are leaving because they cannot afford to live in Sonoma County. In the last five years, students at Analy High School have had 20 different English teachers and 17 different math teachers. That’s too much turnover for a school our size and turnover, the lack of consistency, hurts our students,” said Smedshammer.
A lack of cooperation and disrespectful behavior on the part of management has made for contentious negotiations. A state-appointed neutral factfinder in a report released Oct. 25 noted salaries are too low and a competitive salary increase is necessary. The factfinder recommended a three-year contract with a 4% salary increase per year, similar to what the teachers proposed. Unfortunately, district management refuses to budge in negotiations, says Brian Miller, WSCTA lead negotiator. “We have tried our best to bargain in good faith, but the district management has offered us half the salary increase that the neutral factfinder recommended and a much worse health benefits package than the factfinder recommended. So now we go to the picket line in an attempt to change the course of a district that refuses to listen, not only to its teachers, but also to its students, parents, and community.”
“The good news is that the bargaining table is still there and so are the chairs. The only thing missing is the invitation,” Miller said. He encouraged community members to “urge the district management and school board to continue bargaining and offer us a fair contract that respects the neutral fact-finder’s recommendations, and averts the strike on November 13th. But if I’m not at the table – then I’ll be on the line. ”
“We don’t want to strike, but we will for our kids,” Smedshammer said. “The fact is we’ve done our homework. This district can afford our proposal. We are the professionals. We are in the classrooms everyday working with students. Teachers should be a priority in this district’s budget.”
The two sides have been negotiating since November 27, 2018 and went to impasse after five sessions over professional wages, class sizes and health care benefits. While they have an agreement in concept on class size, teachers were so upset by district management’s offer of 0% and health care takebacks that they voted 99% to authorize their leadership team to authorize a strike if an agreement cannot be reached.
“It’s so frustrating because district managers have come to the table unprepared to reach an agreement,” said Smedshammer. “We want to settle this. We want what’s best for our students – and our students’ best resources are their teachers. So, we are standing up for our students. We see the need to retain our quality teachers by providing competitive compensation based on funding the district is receiving and on the needs of our students.”
Parents and students support WSCTA’s efforts to improve teacher pay and student learning conditions, especially around issues such district management’s decision to change the school day from a seven to a six-period day as a cost-cutting measure. “This move reveals the district’s misplaced priorities. Like first responders, teachers are critical,” said Smedshammer. “Our students deserve better. Our teachers deserve better.”
WSUHSD is a three-school district and includes the communities of Forestville (the site of a teacher strike last August), Cazadero, Graton, Guerneville, Occidental, Monte Rio, and Sebastopol.