To understand the landmark McCleary school-funding case, and a big reason why state lawmakers are struggling to reach a final settlement, you have to understand something called “TRI pay.”
TRI — which stands for additional time, responsibility and incentive — is a big chunk of local money originally intended to pay teachers for extras, such as serving as a high school department chair or staying after school to tutor struggling students.
Over the years, TRI has grown into a way to boost pay for teachers. It’s fueled by districts wanting to offer more attractive salaries and by the state, which gave districts that power and avoided having to fund teacher raises out of its own coffers.
The local contribution to teacher pay, the majority of which comes through TRI, now makes up about 20 percent of teacher annual salaries, an average of almost $14,000 per teacher. That adds up to roughly $750 million a year for all the districts across the state.
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A similar pattern exists for school administrators and teaching assistants and janitors: Districts rely on levy dollars to pay part of their salaries. Principals and other administrators get almost half their pay from local funds.
Because of the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, that has to change.
In that 2012 ruling, the justices said the state must cover all the costs of providing a basic education to the state’s schoolchildren, including competitive pay for teachers, principals, administrators, and other school and district employees.
Lawmakers have raised education spending in the past few years to cover other basics, such as a full day of kindergarten for all students and the full cost of heat, supplies and transporting students to and from school.
But they have yet to tackle salaries — including the complex puzzle of TRI pay — as the 2018 McCleary deadline approaches.
“If you want quality programs for students, you need to have quality people. And that means you have to pay the market rate,” said Ken Hoover, a retired superintendent who worked in the Edmonds and Monroe school districts. “The state system is nowhere near that.”
Teacher salaries have been getting the most attention in the McCleary debate, which reignited with the start of the legislative session this year.
With about 62,000 teachers working in public schools, their combined state and local pay accounts for 70 percent of the $5.1 billion spent on K-12 salaries in Washington.
Even with the state and local parts of teacher pay combined, many argue Washington teachers are underpaid.
In Seattle, for example, a first-year teacher’s salary would be $35,305 without TRI pay — and $46,728 with it. A teacher with eight years of experience and 90 credits beyond a bachelor’s degree would take home $48,474 in base pay, and an additional $16,697 in TRI.
But lawmakers are debating how much teachers should be paid and how much of the local share is the state’s responsibility.
Much of the latter centers on TRI, which has had a long, tangled history dating to the mid-’70s.
That’s when Seattle and two dozen other school districts won a lawsuit that was, in many ways, almost identical to McCleary. After their victory, state funding for public schools increased, and local contributions were cut — and limited — to one-third of what they had been.
A few years later, state lawmakers limited salary growth and prohibited districts from using local funds to boost base salaries. The Legislature feared local spending could grow beyond its control, risking another rebuke from the courts.
Teachers then started negotiating a second contract with districts, separate from the one for their basic pay. That wasn’t explicitly allowed, but wasn’t prohibited either.
The practice grew so popular that six years later, lawmakers allowed districts to continue it — saying those second contracts could cover “additional time, additional responsibilities or incentives” — or TRI.
At the same time, the Legislature raised the amount that school districts could collect from their taxpayers, from 10 percent of their state and federal school funding to 20 percent.
No one thought the two legislative actions were a coincidence.
“What I’ve heard about the history, and it is history repeating itself, is the Legislature understood they couldn’t fund salaries appropriately within the state budget,” said Bill Keim, executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators. “So they created TRI as somewhat of a safety valve.”
Over time, TRI pay started to include what many people would consider basic parts of teachers’ jobs: Attending an open house at the start of school, meeting with parents, grading homework, preparing lessons.
Across most districts, the biggest chunk of TRI pay is for work called “deemed done,” which has no strings attached.
“Teachers just expect it now,” University of Washington education professor Marge Plecki said about TRI pay in general. “You don’t really have to do much to get it.”
Stephen Nielsen, who is deputy superintendent of Seattle Public Schools and has worked in school finance for more than three decades, agreed that TRI has moved far away from its original intent.
“It’s just salary now,” he said. “Those dollars have been supplanting (the) state’s responsibility for a fair and attractive wage for educators.”
What TRI pay covers still varies widely from district to district.
Along with “deemed done,” some local TRI contracts cover extra training for teachers who work with students learning English. Others provide additional pay for time spent in a “zero period” before classes start or writing learning plans for students with special needs
After negotiations on a full McCleary fix failed in 2015, state lawmakers formed a bipartisan task force that, among others things, was supposed to tackle TRI. But it never agreed on what should be considered basic — in fact, it didn’t come up with any joint recommendations at all.
Since then, Democrats and Republicans have proposed very different McCleary fixes. Democrats proposed spending more than $6.5 billion to increase all school employee salaries over the next four years. (And they would allow teachers to continue to negotiate TRI pay on top of that.)
Republicans, meanwhile, unveiled a sweeping plan that would cap salaries at 80 percent of a district’s total budget, and introduce merit pay for teachers. Districts also couldn’t spend local tax revenue on TRI pay or any other expense before the state certifies that it doesn’t overlap with basic education.
Debate has only just begun on the competing plans, but Brian Benzel, retired superintendent of Spokane Public Schools, said he hopes politicians don’t use districts as scapegoats.
“The biggest misperception is that somehow, me and my colleagues and predecessors and successors have just been flippantly giving this money away,” Benzel said. “TRI was always used as a quid pro quo to get a contract (and) to get dedicated teachers into the classroom.
“This is a very, very difficult problem, and I just don’t know how it gets addressed in one legislative session,” said Benzel. “The Legislature has been slow-walking this for three or four years now.”
TRI pay history
1975: Seattle voters reject two successive school tax levies, prompting budget cuts. Seattle’s school district and several others file suit against the state, saying it is shirking its constitutional duty by underfunding public schools.
1977: Thurston County Superior Court Judge Robert Doran sides with the districts.
1978: The state Supreme Court affirms the Doran decision.
1981: The Legislature prohibits school districts from using local money to boost base teacher salaries.
1987: The Legislature changes course, allowing districts to use local dollars for teacher pay, but just for “extras” — extra time, responsibility and incentives, or TRI. Lawmakers also raise cap on local tax levies, giving districts a way to pay for TRI contracts.
2007: A coalition of groups, plus two families, go to court, again alleging that the state is falling short of its constitutional duty to fund schools.
2010: King County Superior Court Judge John Erlick agrees.
2012: The state Supreme Court upholds the Erlick decision and sets a deadline of 2018 for the state to significantly increase its share of school funding.