Editorials

K-12 teachers, lawmakers must go back to class

Tumwater teachers wave signs at Littlerock Road and Trosper Road on Thursday morning. Teachers have been on strike since Saturday, and now the Tumwater School District has filed an injunction to get them back to work.
Tumwater teachers wave signs at Littlerock Road and Trosper Road on Thursday morning. Teachers have been on strike since Saturday, and now the Tumwater School District has filed an injunction to get them back to work. Rolf Boone

The Tumwater School District is headed to court Friday to halt a teachers’ strike that began Saturday over a pay contract.

We hope a judge can end this dispute by sending teachers back to the classroom and by sending a message to state policy makers.

Teacher pay is a statewide problem that deserves an orderly solution — perhaps through statewide bargaining.

As of Thursday, a round-up by state Senate Republicans showed nine school districts — including Tacoma, Puyallup and Centralia — had yet to start classes as a result of labor strife.

The shutdowns affect more than 115,600 students or roughly a tenth of Washington’s 1.1 million students, according to state data cited by the Senate fiscal staff.

Though we support K-12 educators and their right to bargain for fair wages, their salary demands have been aggressive this year. In Tumwater they appear to be well beyond what the district can sustain over the next two years.

The Tumwater district says it offered 13 percent to 16 percent increases in pay spread over two school years, which seems generous to an outsider.

The union wants a one-year increase closer to between 26 percent and 31 percent, according to the district’s web site.

Teachers won’t like hearing this. But the Legislature is the right place to argue about pay, because it is state lawmakers who – under state court orders – completely revamped K-12 funding and are now supposed to have allocated full funding for basic-education salaries.

To get out from under the longstanding court orders in the McCleary case, legislators provided an extra $1 billion investment into K-12 this year to address pay and staffing issues and end subsidies from local property tax levies.

But they punted on pay scales, leaving it to locals to sort out. Tumwater is among the unlucky districts that will see overall revenues dip next year due to legislative restrictions that are supposed to bar use of local levies for basic education costs like core pay.

That mismatch is the crux of the pay issue. Local districts simply must not authorize salary raises for which they don’t expect to have funds to cover in 2019.

This is true even if teachers are deserving of raises and even if other, richer school districts around the state are giving double-digit pay raises that push top pay to as high as $115,000 a year.

Ultimately, Gov. Jay Inslee should step into this fight by pledging to devise a fairer and more predictable pay scale for teachers around the state in 2019. The previous two governors helped diffuse strikes.

We’ve said before that the right place to set pay is at the state level, because that is where the salary money comes from.

Fall is already an anxious time for teachers, learners and their parents. Adding uncertainty about when school starts helps no one, including teachers’ reputations.

If the Tumwater district is right on the law, arguing there is no right for teachers to strike, the Thurston County judge on the case should have an easy time.

Ultimately the heavier lifting is for the Legislature and Inslee.

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