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School district, teachers at loggerheads yet again

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Dozens of local educators descended on Tuesday’s school board meeting as talks between the city’s school district and teachers union appear to be breaking down once more, this time over the negotiation process itself.

Superintendent Steve Bolman said this week that the district will ask that an impasse be declared and that the state appoint a mediator so that talks can move forward — making this the second time in less than a year that contract negotiations have broken down between the Petaluma City Schools District and the Petaluma Federation of Teachers.

Last fall, both the district and the PFT agreed to declare an impasse, and a state mediator was brought in to help guide negotiations to an agreement that was finally reached in November. At that time, the issues revolved around the length of the school year, the implementation of new technology and the establishment of an early kindergarten program. This time, the two sides are at odds over the negotiations process: how many people will be allowed to “observe” the ongoing talks. The problem arose when recent negotiations began on July 7 and about 65 members of the teachers’ group showed up as observers of the process — something union representatives say is perfectly appropriate. PFT president Kim Sharp said in a written statement, “Our members have a right to attend bargaining sessions as observers while the PFT and PCSD negotiate with each team’s respective bargaining representatives. PFT members are simply exercising their right to view the negotiation process as they have done in the past without any objection from the district.”

School district negotiators disagree.

“We believe it is an unfair labor practice for the Federation of Teachers to try to make the negotiations an open meeting,” Bolman said. “Negotiations are not intended to be conducted at a public meeting.”

“We’ve never had more than one or two observers in the room,” he said, adding that it’s fine with the district negotiating team if PFT members want to wait in the board room and receive periodic updates on the negotiations.

Sharp said it is not unusual to have people, observe negotiations. “Lots of boards have open negotiations,” she said.

Sharp said that progress being made and its is too early to call for mediation. “We have had several back and forth proposals on money issues,” she said. “Mediation is when you have gone through all the items and haven’t made any progress. There are about 15 items on the proposals and we have tentatively agreed on two. We’re ready to go back to the table. We haven’t touched things like class size, salaries and health care.”

While the school district waits to hear if the state will accept its request for an impasse to be declared and a state mediator appointed, expected to happen later this week, the PFT is planning to file an unfair labor practice charge against the district “for failure to meet and negotiate with bargaining representatives in good faith.”

Sandra Larsen, chief negotiator for the PFT said what the teachers want is to get back to the negotiating table. “Our hope is that we will be able to resolve our difference and return to the table to reach an agreement that is suitable to our member and the school board,” she said.

(Contact John Jackson at johnie.jackson@arguscou rier.com)