Education

Tumwater teachers authorize a strike as contract talks come down to the wire

More than half of the members of the North Thurston Education Association gather at Timberline High School in Lacey on Monday to hear the latest on negotiations. The union is asking for double-digit pay increases, which it says the district can afford based on financial projections from the state. The teachers union and district are still negotiating with a week to go before the first day of school.
More than half of the members of the North Thurston Education Association gather at Timberline High School in Lacey on Monday to hear the latest on negotiations. The union is asking for double-digit pay increases, which it says the district can afford based on financial projections from the state. The teachers union and district are still negotiating with a week to go before the first day of school. rboone@theolympian.com

With a week to go before the first day of school, Tumwater teachers have voted to authorize a strike amid contentious contract negotiations.

Members of the Tumwater Education Association, the teachers union, voted Monday to authorize the strike. However, the decision to strike or not will be made when the teachers’ current contract runs out at midnight Friday, said Tim Voie, TEA president.

The first day of school is set for Sept. 5.

“I’m really hoping that we can make some movement on the two sides and avoid a strike. The last thing that teachers want is to go on strike,” Voie said Tuesday.

Tumwater is one of many Washington school districts with contract negotiations coming down to the wire. That is because lawmakers added billions of dollars to school funding after the state Supreme Court said the state has to pay for “basic education.”

Lawmakers also put limits on how much districts can raise through local levies and got rid of the state’s salary schedule that said what teachers earn based on their experience and education.

According to the Washington Education Association, which represents teachers and other school employees, more than 30 districts have agreed to double-digit percentage pay increases for 2018-19. But tough negotiations already have delayed the first day of school in Longview Public Schools, Evergreen Public Schools in Vancouver, and Washougal School District.

Olympia’s teachers union said Monday it had reached a tentative agreement with the Olympia School District. The North Thurston Education Association, meanwhile, is still negotiating with its district.

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Tumwater officials have said cuts to local levy funds mostly wipe out increases in state funding, and the district is projecting budget deficits in the coming years. It is offering 13 to 16 percent pay increases over two years, while the union has asked for 26 to 31 percent increases over one year, according to the district.

Voie said competitive wages are needed to attract and retain high quality teachers. He said they also are negotiating on working conditions, including class sizes and help with students with social-emotional problems.

Bargaining sessions with a mediator are planned for Thursday, Friday and Monday.

In an email to parents and staff over the weekend, Laurie Wiedenmeyer, who leads community relations for the district, said the district is optimistic the two sides will reach an agreement.

“Our district deeply values our teachers and continues to bargain in good faith. We desire to reach an agreeable resolution that provides a competitive compensation package despite the state funding challenges the district is facing…” she wrote.

In North Thurston, more than half of NTEA’s 1,000-plus members turned out for a general meeting Monday to hear the latest on negotiations. The union is asking for double-digit increases, which it says the district can afford based on financial projections from the state.

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“I have members telling me, ‘Hey, I just found out Elma’s settlement, I could drive there,’” said Ray Nelson, NTEA president, referring to Elma’s average increase of 27 percent for the coming school year. “Members are taking notice of what is happening in other districts.”

North Thurston’s next bargaining session is scheduled for Thursday. Nelson said he is hopeful they will reach a tentative deal on salaries then; the union also is surveying teachers to see what they want to do if no deal is reached when their contract expires Friday.

Centralia teachers also are still negotiating, but teachers already have voted to strike if there is no deal by Friday. Wednesday is their last scheduled bargaining session before their contract runs out on Friday.

“We’re ready to do whatever it takes,” said Lauri Johnson, Centralia Education Association’s bargaining lead.

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

Abby Spegman: 360-704-6869
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