Teachers Union Oct. 2019

Educators from the West Sonoma County Teachers Association showed up en masse to a protest at the West Sonoma County Union High School District board meeeting in October.

UPDATE: Tuesday, Nov. 12, 5 p.m.: The West Sonoma County Union High School District has cancelled its Nov. 13 board meeting so as to concentrate on negotiations and budget challenges.

UPDATE: Tuesday, Nov. 12, 9 a.m.: The district has dropped the request for the injunctions against the teachers union described in this article. Also, according to teachers union president Lily Smedshammer, late yesterday afternoon the union "received word the district wants to return to the bargaining table tomorrow (that is, Nov. 12). We're hopeful WSCTA will receive an offer that is more in line with the recommendations of the neutral factfinder's report."

The union for high school teachers in west county said its members will go on strike on Wednesday morning, Nov. 13, to pressure West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD ) to meet the union’s demand for a 12% salary increase over the next three years, with no diminution in health or retirement benefits.

The strike comes in the aftermath of a report from a neutral fact-finder for the Public Employees Relations Board, who recommended that the district grant the 12% salary increase, which the district said it can’t afford. The fact-finder also suggested a reduction in the teachers’ health and retirement benefits. (See last week’s article, “Teachers start countdown to strike,” for an in-depth discussion of the fact finder’s report.)

The fact-finder also offered an alternative, suggesting that the district grant a retroactive increase of 4% for the 2018-19 school year and that at the two parties return to the bargaining table. The district embraced this alternative in its response to the fact-finding report, but according to union reps, never made any proposals based on it during negotiations last week. As for the union, a union rep dismissed the one-year contract idea as "absurd."

In a letter to parents on Friday, Nov. 8, WSCUHSD Superintendent Toni Beal assured families that the district had hired substitute teachers and that school would continue throughout the strike.

“All of our high schools will be open throughout the strike,” she wrote in the letter. “The district has hired substitute teachers and will maintain safe and orderly campuses for our students. We will be providing enriching educational programs for all students during the strike. Food service and regular transportation services will continue through the strike.”

A new offer from the district

In her letter, Beal revealed that the district had made a new offer to teachers in their last bargaining session on Wednesday, Nov. 6.

The district made its highest offer yet: a 6% salary increase over three years:

  • 1% salary increase for 2018-19;
  • 3% salary increase for 2019-20;
  • 2% salary increase for 2020-21.

This offer included a hard cap of $19,500 on yearly medical benefits, beginning on Oct. 1, 2020.

In her letter to parents, Beal wrote that the district’s new offer would cost the $1.6 million over three years. She wrote that the union’s demand for a 12% raise over three years would cost the district $3.2 million over three years — money she said the district simply doesn’t have.

The teachers union said the letter contained “significant errors.”

“A 6% raise does not cost $1.6 million — not even close,” Analy math teacher and chief union negotiator Brian Miller wrote in response. “The district’s own number for the cost of a 1% raise is $86,469. Meaning a 6% raise will cost approximately $518,814, nowhere near $1.6 million. The 12% offer that the neutral fact-finder recommended does not cost $3.2 million. A 12% raise costs approximately $1,037,628.”

Sonoma West currently has a question into the district about this discrepancy.

And out come the lawyers…

In preparation for the strike, WSCUHSD attorney Paul Boylan filed two injunctions on behalf of the school district against the teachers union on Friday, Nov. 8:

  • One injunction seeks to prevent teachers in the district’s special education consortium (who, though they teach K-12, are employed by the high school) from joining the strike.
  • The other seeks to force the union to abide by common principles of picketing, namely that they avoid “blocking vehicle and pedestrian traffic in and out of school grounds, entering/trespassing on school property, harassing parents, students, employees and temporary employees who were not honoring the picket line” or otherwise disrupting school and district operations.

Teachers union president Lily Smedshammer, who was served the injunctions at her home on Saturday morning, said the union’s attorney considered the injunctions to be “frivolous” and that he had not ruled out “a countersuit for a violation of our ability to exercise our workers’ rights.”

Smedshammer said the whole point of the injunctions was “to disrupt our planned strike for Wednesday.”

“They’re attempting to separate some of our members from us to weaken our numbers and weaken the pressure that the district will feel to respect the neutral fact-finders recommendation of a 12% raise,” she said.

The district’s attorney, Paul Boylan, however, defended the injunctions as necessary.  He said that special education consortium teachers work with a fragile, easily upset population that doesn’t deal well with change or substitutes.

“I’m really afraid for those kids,” Boylan said.

Smedshammer said that the courts have ruled in the past that even those who work with vulnerable populations, such as ICU nurses, retain their right to strike. 

Regarding the second injunction involving strike behavior, Boylan said it was necessary because he said the strike at the high school is a part of a coordinated movement among west county teachers, who proved by their behavior at the short strike at Forestville that they couldn’t be relied on to abide by rules of picketing decorum.

Smedshammer said that was ridiculous.

“We are caring educational professionals who want to maintain the safety of our students and campus,” she said. “We’d never encourage or participate in any sort of aggressive action that would lead to anyone feeling unsafe.”

The two parties will meet in court on Tuesday morning, Nov. 12, where Smedshammer said the union’s attorney expects both injunctions to be dismissed.

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