School funding changes are put to the test in salary negotiations: ‘It’s a brand new system’

“We want to make sure we get our piece of the pie.” Tumwater teachers rally for salary increase.

Teachers in the Tumwater School District picket to encourage salary increases after the Washington legislature added money for court-ordered public school funding.
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Teachers in the Tumwater School District picket to encourage salary increases after the Washington legislature added money for court-ordered public school funding.

Area teachers have spent the summer packing the halls of school board meetings and waving signs on busy streets in the name of better pay.

“What we’re trying to do is let the community know that we are involved in contract negotiations and that we think our teachers deserve a good portion of the money that the state put forward for teacher salaries,” Tim Voie, Tumwater Education Association president, said at a sign-waving event in Tumwater last month.

They aren’t alone. According to the Washington Education Association, most summers about 150 contracts are open for negotiations, but this year more than 250 contracts for teachers and support staff were fully or partially open.

That’s because state lawmakers have made major changes to how Washington schools are funded.

After the state Supreme Court ruled the state has to pay for “basic education,” lawmakers gave schools more state money while putting limits on how much districts can raise through local levies and what levy dollars can cover. They also got rid of the state’s salary schedule that laid out what teachers earn based on their experience and education. They also added nearly $1 billion for salaries.

Now, districts will come up with their own salaries schedules, which leaves a lot of room to negotiate.

“It’s a brand-new system for how teachers are paid,” said Rich Wood, a spokesman for the WEA, which represents teachers and other school employees.

Unions are pointing to the boost in state funding as proof districts can afford significant increases. This spring, WEA urged members to try for raises of 15 percent or more for teachers and up to 37 percent for support staff.

As of this week, about 20 districts had agreed to double-digit percentage increases for 2018-19, according to WEA.

In Edmonds, the Everett Herald reported a tentative agreement reached this week would raise starting teacher salaries to nearly $63,000 a year and pay veteran teachers as much as $114,000. Seattle’s union told KIRO this week the district could lose teachers to higher-paying districts if Seattle doesn’t offer similar increases.

Meanwhile, in Centralia, The Chronicle reported this week that teachers voted to strike if they can’t reach a contract deal with their district before the first day of school.

Teachers in the Olympia, North Thurston and Tumwater districts are negotiating contracts, and in Tumwater, the two sides could be in for some tough bargaining.

The district is projecting a budget deficit of about $300,000 for 2018-19; in 2019-20, that goes up to about $2.7 million. That’s because cuts to local levy funds mostly wipe out increases in state funding, said Jim Brittain, Tumwater’s executive director of financial services.

The 2018-19 budget plan includes 3.1 percent raises for all staff.

“A district budget is a value statement,” the Tumwater Education Association wrote on Facebook. “If they truly value Tumwater teachers, the board will approve tapping the reserve fund and making the necessary budgetary decisions to honor their most valued asset — the folks on the front lines.”

Brittain said lawmakers have created an uneven playing field when it comes to teacher pay. Tumwater did not get a bonus in state funds that was given to some districts where the cost of living is higher. North Thurston Public Schools did get some of that money. Olympia School District is slated to get a similar bonus in 2019-20 for districts with more experienced teachers.

“I don’t think (lawmakers) really understand what they did,” Brittain said. “WEA is saying, ‘You should be paying the same as North Thurston,’ but we’re not getting the same as North Thurston.”

Abby Spegman: 360-704-6869