YEAR IN REVIEW: education 2019

In this Year in Review issue, we tackle this year’s disasters and the topic of education. Next week, look for Year in Review, Part 2: housing, crime, and the environment.

The teachers’ revolt that started in West Virginia and rolled across the country blew into west Sonoma County early in the year — lacing salary negotiations with a mixture of hope and acrimony that’s unusual for these parts.

Traditionally in west county, teams of teachers have negotiated their salaries with district officials and board members. But this year, both sides brought in the big guns — districts lawyered up (several hired Davis-based attorney Paul Nicholas Boylan) and local teachers unions brought in hard-nosed negotiators from the California Teachers Association, the state teachers union. This seems to have cranked up the tension even more — leaving both sides blaming “outsiders” for the rancorous nature of negotiations.

In the end, teachers won the day. 

• Oak Grove teachers got a three-year contract with raises of 5% in the first year, 5% in the second year and 3% in year three. 

• Gravenstein teachers won a three-year deal with a 5% rise in the first year, a $1,500 boost to the salary schedule and a 4% raise on top of that in year two (which is really more like a 6% raise) and a 3% raise in year three.

• Sebastopol teachers took home a two-year deal with a raise of 5% in the first year and 4% in the second year.

• Twin Hills teachers nailed down a two-year contract with a 5% raise in the first year and a 4.5% in the second year.

• Harmony agreed to a three-year contract with a 4% raise each year.

Two teachers strikes

In tiny Forestville, all 16 teachers in the district hit the picket line on Monday, Aug. 12, three days before school was scheduled to start. It was the first strike in Sonoma County since 1980. Four days later the strike ended with a three-year contract with a raise of 5%, 5% and 3% over three years.

The high school strike was even shorter. After working for a year without a contract, 100 high school teachers from Analy, El Molino and Laguna went on strike on Wednesday, Nov. 13, and by late Friday, Nov. 15, they had the three-year agreement they’d been asking for for months.

The contract provides teachers with a 12% wage increase over three years, with the third year contingent on the passage of a high school parcel tax that will appear on the ballot in March 2020.

The agreement came when Superintendent Toni Beal asked for face-to-face talks with the local union’s core negotiating team (Brian Miller, Lily Smedshammer and John Grech) and left the big guns (CTA rep Eric Olson Fernandez and Paul Boylan) out of the discussions.

Teacher of the Year: Katya Robinson

Another west county teacher who won big this year was Katya Robinson, a special education teacher at Park Side Elementary, who was chosen as Sonoma County’s Teacher of the Year in May and as a California Teacher of the Year in October.

Robinson is best known for her use of art and athletics in teaching special education and her devotion to the practice of “reverse inclusion”— creating opportunities for special education students and general education students to learn together.

Comings and goings

There were several new, top-level hires at districts throughout west county. In Forestville, Renée Semik replaced retiring Phyllis Parisi as superintendent. Gravenstein Union hired David Rose as that district’s new superintendent.

Shauna Ferdinandson became the new principal of Analy High School, and Joelene Morasch came in as the new principal at Guerneville School.

Matthew Morgan, the new superintendent and principal of Harmony Union School District in Occidental, caused a bit of a stir on the first day by greeting students and families with a rainbow flag. Morgan, who is straight and married with children, said he wanted to send a message of inclusivity, but a few parents didn’t like what they saw as a “gay agenda.” One family left the school, but most of the hard feelings got smoothed over west-county-style with a couple of heart-felt circle discussions.

At the high school district, Chief Budget Officer Mary Schafer, who was savaged by the teachers union during the negotiations, decided to leave the district, reportedly to join the budget team at the county office of education. Superin-tendent Beal also released district counsel Paul Nicholas Boylan, whose negotiating style irked rather than soothed every opposing negotiating team he ran up against in west county.

High school budget woes

For the financially strapped West Sonoma County Union High School District, 2019 was a hard year. Because the district’s three-year budget is in the red, the county office of education has demanded that the district chop roughly $500,000 from its budget.

Board meetings thus fell into a depressingly familiar pattern. The superintendent would pinpoint a wildly popular program to be cut due to budget constraints, then the proponents of that program would descend on the board meeting en masse with handmade protest signs and heart-felt pleas from teachers, parents and students.

This happened in response to plans to cut the Analy Jazz Band and 7th period — both of which were saved, at least for this school year, but that may be a temporary reprieve. One thing that did get cut earlier in the year, despite pleas, was the West County Charter Middle School, which the high school handed back to Forestville School due to budget considerations. Last week, the district floated the idea of moving Laguna High School, the continuation school, onto El Molino High School campus in Forestville, which is operating at only 50% capacity. Protests ensued. (See the full story on page 1.)

Other changes

There was some good news this year (depending on your point of view).

• The multi-million dollar Performing Arts Center opened at El Molino. (It was paid for by a facilities bond and thus isn’t implicated in the district’s budget woes.) See our article.

• In response to a review of the high schools’ special education programs, the high school district got the OK to hire a director of special education. Though this would add another expensive administrative salary to the books, Superintendent Beal hopes it will result in the district being able to serve special needs students inside the district rather than having to pay for them to go to expensive private schools outside of the district. (Paying for outside services for special education makes up much of the district’s ever-growing services budget line item).

• West county high schools have also recently adopted wide-ranging changes to their discipline policies in 2019. All district high schools — Analy, El Molino and Laguna — now have common disciplinary guidelines. These guidelines also reflect a shift in the district’s underlying disciplinary philosophy — from one based on punishment to one based on restorative justice, which focuses on mediation, agreement and restitution rather than punishment. (See our story on this issue.)

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