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Teacher unrest escalates as negotiations continue to stall

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Both sides say they want to negotiate, but neither side will negotiate until they can decide on how many people will be allowed into the negotiating room, leaving the Petaluma City Schools administration and the Petaluma Federation of Teachers at loggerheads in a contentious labor dispute that continues to escalate as it heads into a fourth month.

The two sides have not met at a bargaining table since early July as they continue to wrangle over the number of “observers” that will be allowed to attend the negotiating sessions. The PFT wants sessions open to any member to observe.

“We want the district to allow our members to quietly observe the process as they have in the past,” said Sandra Larsen, the chief negotiator for the PFT. “What does the district have to hide?”

School Superintendent Steve Bolman said a large number of observers would hamper negotiations, pointing out that during a July meeting, 65 PFT members showed up to observe a bargaining session.

“You can’t just walk into negotiations and understand the history,” he said, adding that “candid discussion would be changed by the presence of observers.”

Fred Glass, a spokesman for the California Teachers Federation, said the number of observers must be agreed upon by the two parities, although he’s aware of other negotiations that have been open to all members of a union.

“There is no law that I know about,” he said. “The parties decide between themselves what they want to do.”

Without face-to-face negotiations, the two sides used e-mail to communicate with teachers this week.

In a memorandum dated Oct. 13 and sent to employees, the school board offered to hold an information meeting open to all PFT members, and would allow up to five PFT members to observe a negotiating session. But, it said if the “outstanding issues” were not resolved during that meeting, future sessions would be without observers.

Kim Sharp, PFT president, called the district memorandum “inaccurate” and “unfair,” and the federation responded with its own e-mail, reiterating its position that all PFT members must be allowed to observe the negotiations.

Teachers rallied prior to Tuesday night’s school board meeting, marching from Walnut Park to the school district’s office ton Douglas Street where teachers and parents expressed their concerns before addressing the school board.

“We are worried that if this isn’t resolved we are going to be losing well-qualified and well-trained teachers,” said parent Elizabeth Clary. “Good teachers should continue to be a high priority.”

The key issue when the two sides begin negotiations will be salaries. Because the district hasn’t provided a cost of living adjustment since 2007, the PFT asked for a 4 percent salary increase, while the district is offering a 2.5 percent increase, plus a $500 one-time payment.

“We want our teachers to be well compensated within the fiscal abilities of the district,” said board President Troy Sanderson.

Larsen said the district has the ability to meet the teachers’ demand. “It was always our intention to only ask for what the district could afford,” she said. “They have (fiscal reserves) because our members took a pay decrease (during the recession) in the form of furlough days.”

Both sides maintain that they are anxious to return to the bargaining table; Sanderson added that Bolman has been instructed by the board to resume negotiations as soon as possible.

Bolman said to get the two sides back to the bargaining table may require declaring and impasse and the appointment of a state mediator, something the district sought in July, but was denied.

On Aug. 1, the PFT filed a formal charge of Unfair Practices with the Public Employee Relations Board, citing a violation of the educational Employee Relations Act, which requires the district to negotiate in “good faith” with the union.

A ruling is still pending on that filing.

(Emily Charrier contributed to this report.)

(Contact John Jackson at johnie.jackson@arguscourier.com)