Teacher strike averted in Sebastopol’s Twin Hills Union School District

By Camille Escovedo, Staff Writer, SoCoNews, August 10, 2021

In addition to hard bargaining, Twin Hills Teachers Associated waged an Facebook campaign to which many local businesses lent their names in support of the teachers. (Image from the Twin Hills Teachers Association facebook)

On Aug. 9, days before union teachers were poised to strike in Sebastopol, the Twin Hills Teachers Association (THTA) ratified an agreement over salary raises after finding a compromise with the Twin Hills Union School District (THUSD) they could accept.

The union voted to take a 2% on-schedule salary increase for the 2020-21 school year and a 4% on-schedule salary raise for this 2021-22 school year, per an Aug. 9 district press release. The board of trustees are set to ratify the consensus on Thursday, Aug. 12, the same day picketing would have started if the parties didn’t reach an agreement.

“We have spent all summer planning and preparing for a strike, so to have a resolution at the last minute, there is a sense of immediate relief, especially being able to get back into the classroom after the type of year everybody experienced last year with COVID,” said THTA co-president Nicole Ellwood, education specialist at Twin Hills Charter Middle School for nearly 25 years.

She continued, “We were very ready to do what we needed to do for our members, but we’re grateful we didn’t have to do it.”

Ellwood said the association was exhausted, yet optimistic heading into the future advocating for its members, keeping great educators and thus supporting students. “They’re the reason we’re in the classroom in the first place,” she said.

In the press release, new superintendent Anna-Maria Guzmán said she “appreciates the Union’s ability to come to the table open to new and creative ways of thinking that helped better address teacher and district concerns when it seemed there was no more progress that could be made.”

Guzmán stepped into her new role at the start of July, once then-superintendent Barbara Bickford retired.

The district and the union have come a distance from where they stood nearing summer, when months of failed negotiations and a state mediation led to a fact-finding hearing in May. They were still at odds on the other side.

By June, Bickford strengthened the district’s offer from a 2% bonus in the 2020-21 year and a 2% on-schedule raise for the 2021-22 year after the hearing, pitching a 4% bonus for the first year and a 4% ongoing increase for the current year as the factfinder panel’s neutral chair recommended.

The union held out for an on-schedule raise of 5% for the past year and a 7% ongoing increase for the 2021-22 year. That June, the district imposed its final offer, pending future talks if the state confirmed stable funding that could go to salaries.

“Everyone agrees our teachers need and deserve better salaries,” Guzmán said in the press release. “But the district can only do so much with the funding the state provides,” she added.

“Guzman’s willingness to work with the board and get them to a place to offer something for last year on schedule was really the critical piece for us,” Ellwood said. “She clearly stepped into a situation she wasn’t part of helping to create, so being able to find resolution, we’re grateful for,” she said later.

According to Leslie Konvalinka, math teacher and THTA bargaining chair, the union let her know they were open to working with her and sent her information on their last negotiations with the district.

She said Guzmán asked THTA representatives to meet with her about new independent study requirements and COVID-19 protocols and the conversation eventually led to salaries. “Both sides knew we had to talk about it. I mean, school was rapidly approaching and it’s not just something we could ignore,” Konvalinka said.

Konvalinka said union leaders felt listened to over a series of conversations, including what went wrong last year — when no ongoing raises were offered in the 2020-21 year — and how they could reach an agreement. THTA wanted two years of ongoing, on-schedule salary increases to stay competitive with surrounding districts, Ellwood said.

“It’s not a perfect settlement because we’re still clearly behind in salary and need to move forward and get more competitive in our salaries, but we feel like this is a step in the right direction,” Konvalinka said. “So, we’re optimistic we can continue to work together in our next round of negotiations that start in January for next school year.”

Then, Konvalinka said, THUSD and THTA will begin negotiations for the 2022-23 year before that budget is finalized, giving the union “a better chance of making the students and teachers a priority in that budget,” before the money is allocated and adopted already.

The teachers agreed to join staffing and budget committees, according to the district press release. Ellwood said THTA has been asking for years to join that process to examine the budget and understand the district’s reserves and revenue.

Unlike the district’s imposed numbers, the new proposal offered only ongoing increases, though they’re below the union’s last request for 5% and 7% ongoing raises over the two years.

“Clearly, our last proposal of 5% and 7% would have done a lot more to move us in the right direction moving forward, but we felt we had to acknowledge that the district did make movement and we are going to be starting to have budget committees that really look at our budgets of the four different schools and that we work together more,” Konvalinka said.

Ellwood commented they’ve heard from their members “that we need to be vigilant about making sure that even though this gets us back in the classroom, it’s not a one-time fix-all, and that we continue to look at prioritization of the budget for teachers and students.”

The superintendent seeks collaboration between THTA, THUSD and the board of trustees to call on lawmakers “to address Full and Fair Funding,” the press release said.

Konvalinka said THUSD is mandated to offer certain programs that it does not receive full funding for, propped up in history with property taxes. The area was more agricultural long ago, and its lower property values continue to impact funding, she said.

Ellwood added she believes THTA’s members are committed to fairer funding and would also point out that addressing the funding issue doesn’t mean the district’s budget doesn’t also need to be reprioritized.

Last, the co-president said, “There’s no way that we would’ve been here if we hadn’t had the support of our community, and that’s the parent support, the extended community support of the Twin Hills community, Teamsters, the businesses,” growing emotional for a moment. “There’s no way we would have had any of the results that we have if it hadn’t been their willingness to reach out to the board, the superintendent.”

This article was produced by SoCoNews. See more news at soconews.org