All last week, Petaluma teachers showed up for work right when the morning bell rang and left as soon as the school day was finished. Normally, if an employee is present for an entire work day, that is considered perfect attendance.
But teachers are different. Much of the work of being a teacher is done outside of the hours of instruction, even though teachers are not specifically paid for their time when students are not there.
The Petaluma Federation of Teachers, the union that represents most public school teachers in the city, voted for a “work-to-rule action,” meaning that there was no after school homework help, no lesson planning, no writing letters of recommendation and no other tasks that teachers normally do once the final day’s class is dismissed.
The demonstration by the teachers union was aimed at putting pressure on Petaluma City Schools District officials to resolve an ongoing labor dispute. If contract negotiations do not progress, according to the teachers’ union, their next step will be to strike. While last week’s teachers’ action may have been disruptive to students, it was nothing compared to the major negative effects a strike would have on students and their families.
While we understand the frustration many teachers feel about the lack of progress in contract negotiations, we do not believe that a full blown strike is at all warranted under the current circumstances.
A major sticking point in the teacher’s contract negotiations has been a salary increase for teachers, many of whom rightly say that their pay has not kept pace with the skyrocketing cost of living in Petaluma. The union’s latest proposal is a 2 percent salary increase above last year, which included a 2 percent bonus that was not awarded this year.
The district, which is facing an ongoing structural budget deficit largely due to uncontrolled pension obligations, has proposed no salary increase, for now. But the district’s latest proposal calls for revisiting the salary issue after the results of a financial audit are known on Sept. 30. Provided substantial cuts can be made in other areas, the district says it would be able to potentially provide an ongoing 1.5 percent salary increase.
That the district is cash-strapped and not able to provide the raises teachers demand does not appear to be due to fiscal mismanagement or a lack of respect for teachers. Rather, the district’s latest fiscal problem rests with a state law that required school districts to increase contributions to the California State Teachers Retirement System.
The change in contribution formula will result in a $4 million budget hit to the district over seven years. The school district pension crisis is similar to that faced by nearly every municipality in California, which has forced governments to cut everything from pothole repairs to public safety funding.
While requiring school districts to increase pension spending, the Legislature provided no additional funding, meaning districts have had to look elsewhere for the money.
We recognize the enormous benefits teachers provide to the students in Petaluma and fully understand that their compensation is not keeping pace with the rapidly increasing cost of living in Petaluma. We also recognize that the school district is facing very real funding shortfalls due to increasing pension obligation costs.
There are no easy answers when it comes to school financing.