Wilmar teachers threaten to strike in labor dispute
Teachers and officials in the Wilmar School District are headed to a fact-finding hearing, the last step before educators go on strike as they attempt to wrest more money from the district in contract negotiations.
The last negotiation stage comes after mediation efforts failed this summer. The dozen teachers in the rural district west of Petaluma earlier voted to go on strike if necessary.
The district, which serves 239 kindergarten through sixth grade students at Wilson Elementary school, mirrors other Sonoma County schools that face similar budgetary challenges and have had contentious negotiations with teachers.
The Wilmar Teachers Association originally asked for a 25% raise and a $356 monthly increase in benefits. The latest teacher proposal is a 5% salary increase in each of the next three years.
The district has offered a 3.5% raise for this school year and a $100 monthly increase in healthcare contribution.
Wilmar Superintendent Sheila Garvey, who is in her second year at the district, said the teachers’ proposed raise would drain the district’s reserves.
“We need to show sustainability,” she said. The teacher proposal “is not sustainable in the longterm.”
The teachers say that the district is not negotiating in good faith. They say the district proposal will make it harder to recruit new teachers to move to the area, where the cost of living has steadily increased.
“Our students’ teachers are financially overwhelmed and struggle to afford basic necessities, like rent and healthcare,” said WTA President Janice Garrigan. “Wilmar will never be able to retain and recruit the best educators for our students without a long-term written commitment to fix this situation.”
The fact-finding session on Sept. 18 in Santa Rosa will include a panel of three — one chosen by the union, one chosen by the district, and one appointed by the state — which will issue a report on its findings. The two sides are not bound to accept the panel’s recommendations, and could keep negotiating or the teachers could strike at that point.
The last teacher strike in Sonoma County was last month when Forestville teachers staged a 4-day walkout before receiving a slight bump in pay. Teachers in the much larger Petaluma City Schools District staged a one day strike in 2017.
Teachers in at least three other Sonoma County school districts, including Two Rock, have voted to strike if necessary, and two others have reached an impasse in negotiations, according to the California Teachers Association.
Garvey said she is hopeful that the two sides can come to an agreement, and said that the district administration respects the teachers.
“The district is hopeful that a settlement with WTA can be reached,” she said. “The district cares for, respects and values teachers very much, and wants to pay teachers as much as the district can afford to pay without compromising the quality of the education the school provides and without threatening the fiscal viability of the district.”
Garvey said that if the district pays the teachers their proposed raise, the school would face severe budget cuts and would be at risk of fiscal insolvency. Wilmar three times failed to pass a parcel tax to pay for programs at Wilson School, coming 17 votes short of the two-thirds needed in 2017. That year the district was forced to cut $50,000 from its $2.6 million budget.