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Wilmar teachers threaten to strike in labor dispute

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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.

Wilmar teachers start at $54,408 with a top salary step at 25 years of $86,969. The California Teachers Association said district teachers make 25% below the statewide average and offers one of the lowest average teacher salaries in Sonoma County.

Emily Novoa, a 2nd/3rd grade teacher with 16 years experience at Wilson School, said it is increasingly difficult living in Petaluma on the district salary.

“Every year it gets harder and harder,” she said. “It feels like it’s unachievable to get ahead and plant roots here.”

Garrigan said the district’s budget is expected to grow by $50,000 this year. Garvey said that the district has received one-time money from the state that it can’t count on in the future.

Garvey said the district is planning for contingencies if the teachers go on strike after the fact-finding process. The teachers must give 48 hours notice before a strike, and the district would use substitutes to keep the school open. If students stay home during a strike, the district would lose money since districts are paid by the state based on attendance.

Garvey said she hopes to increase enrollment to help boost the district’s budget. Wilson’s enrollment is down 11 students over last year.

“We respect the staff and would love to be able to offer them what they are asking for,” she said. “At this point, I don’t see that as a possibility.”

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)

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