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Petaluma city schools, teachers union reach impasse

Published: Friday, July 19, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 17, 2013 at 5:07 p.m.

With two schools opening in less than a week, the Petaluma City Schools District and the Petaluma Federation of Teachers have reached an impasse in contract negotiations and asked for a state mediator to help them come to an agreement.

Mary Collins Charter School at Cherry Valley and Penngrove Elementary School, both on a year-round schedule, are slated to open July 24. The other schools in the district open Aug. 22.

The school district and PFT are in the second year of a three-year contract that allows for “openers,” essentially re-negotiations of elements of the contract, including salaries. Negotiators for both sides reached agreement on those issues in May, but the PFT overall membership rejected the negotiated deal, which was subsequently approved by the Petaluma City Schools District Board.

Among the areas of disagreement are plans for an extended kindergarten day, the implementation of a new grading and “parent portal” software program and salary increases.

The two sides met on Friday, but the only agreement they reached was to declare an impasse and ask for a state mediator. Petaluma City Schools District Superintendent Steve Bolman said it is uncertain how long it will take before the state will respond to the mutual request.

Bolman said the PFT membership rejection of the agreement was unexpected. “This is the first time since I have been superintendent that we have had teachers reject a negotiated agreement,” he said. “It came as a surprise to the administration and the board. We felt we had a fair agreement that made the teachers whole in regards to wages and increased health and welfare benefits at a time when district resources remain significantly less than they were before the recession.”

Board President Troy Sanderson also voiced disappointment that the tentative agreement wasn't approved by members of the teachers' union, but said, “The Board of Education remains committed to an agreement that will support the goals of the district and the needs and expectations of our community.”

The teachers are asking for a Cost of Living Adjustment to their salaries.

“With the Passage of Proposition 30 last November that we fought so hard for together, the district can afford to provide teachers with a fair and affordable increase to our salaries after four years of furloughs and no salary increase since the 2007-08 school year,” said PFT President Coleen Maloney.

The proposed contract changes would lengthen the school year five days to 180 days and restore three staff development days and two work days, but that will not take effect until the two sides reach an agreement, Bolman said.

“The district did offer to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding to ensure that 180 days of instruction (and salary) would be restored,” he added. “The proposed MOU to ensure students receive 180 days for students was rejected by PFT.”

Bolman added that restoring those days was a top priority of the administration and the board.

The district has also agreed to pick up the increase in cost for a Kaiser Health plan, a benefit that would amount to $61 per month per employee.

Bolman said the proposed agreement would put Petaluma teachers 2.26 percent above the average entry level salary for most school districts in the area, including Novato, Sonoma Valley, Cotati, Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa and Windsor. Petaluma teachers earning high-level salaries would average almost 3.5 percent more than those in other districts.

PFT representatives say the district can afford better salary increases because the passage of California Proposition 30 and savings made through the furlough days has left it with an $8.25 million surplus — $6.25 million more than the minimum 3 percent reserve required by the state.

But the district may have to dig into those reserves in order to make its upcoming budget work.

Bolman said even with the new state budget and passage of a new funding formula that gives more control over spending to individual school districts, the district anticipates deficit spending for 2013-2014.

“We anticipate doing better in future years as the state makes education a budget priority,” he said. “But one thing we've learned is that the state economy is precarious.”

Also at issue are district plans to extend the kindergarten day by 88 minutes, four days each week beginning with the upcoming school year. Teachers say they did not have sufficient input.

“Teachers have not rejected the concept of all-day kindergarten, but rather, we have rejected the lack of structure, budget, curriculum, open discussion and actual research in implementing this decision,” said Jon Harford, chief negotiator for the PFT. “We feel families should have the opportunity to choose what schedule is best for their child with quality programs that have been devised by teachers and school officials in a constructive and honest shared decision making process,” he said.

Bolman said the extended kindergarten day is becoming the norm throughout the state and that the proposal had been discussed at a meeting of the Employee-Employer Committee in December.

The new “parent portal” software program, part of the district's overall technology plan, would require teachers to post grades and other student information online where it could be shared with parents. Teachers are concerned about lack of training and testing of the new program and say there are glitches in the program itself.

Bolman said the district is planning to bring in representatives of the new software program, Aeries, in August to provide training to district teachers. They say staff members, trained in the use of the programs, will also available to assist teachers.

Harford said he is hopeful a mutual agreement can be reached.

“Our hope is that with the help of a state mediator and the impasse procedure, we will be able to resolve our differences and reach an agreement that is suitable to submit to our members and the school board for a successful ratification vote, and that we can restore faith in the shared-decision making process that has worked so well in the past for the district and the Petaluma City School teachers,” he said.

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