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‘We don’t want to do that’ — Following rare strike in 2015, Seattle Schools, teachers work on new deal

A 2015 picket outside Garfield High during the first Seattle teachers strike in 30 years (Image: CHS)

With just two weeks before students are set to arrive, Seattle Public Schools and the Seattle Education Association (SEA) are still hashing out details of a new contract for the more than 3,200 educators in the district.

“I know that for many of us we are feeling the crunch of time now,” Laura Lehni, an eighth grade social studies teacher at Washington Middle School, said.

While strides have been made on student safety, race and equity concerns, and the size of school nursing staffs, the discussion regarding compensation for educators has moved slowly. Both sides desperately want to avoid the heightened tensions that led to a five-day strike in 2015.

“We don’t want to do that, but we also need a competitive professional wage,” SEA president Phyllis Campano said.

These bargaining sessions, which have been ongoing since May, come at a time when other local districts have been seeing large wage increases for educators. For example, the Edmonds School District announced a collective-bargaining agreement that resulted in a teacher’s starting salary being approximately $63,000, which is a 19% increase. Salaries for veteran instructors could top $114,000.

In 2015, the brief strike ended with an agreement on raises as well as guaranteed recess time for students, and new testing policies.

With state money allowing the district to plan for a $45.4 million budget surplus in the 2018-2019 school year, teachers hope to secure a major increase in pay as housing costs in the city are quickly rising. Campano believes that Seattle will lose many educators to the wage situation as they move to suburban districts that pay more money. Teachers in Seattle currently earn between $50,000 and $100,000.

On the other hand, Seattle Public Schools argues that they cannot afford big raises because they are predicting multi-million dollar deficits after January 2019 since revenue from the local property tax levy will decrease.

“When the McCleary decision was announced by the state Supreme Court, many districts benefited from increased funding — Seattle was not one of them,” SPS wrote in an email to CHS, referring to the ruling that ordered lawmakers to end a reliance on local property taxes as a way to pay for public schooling. “In our case, the legislature reduced our local levies too far, resulting in a projected budget shortfall starting in 2019-20 that will grow over time.”

Both sides hope 2018’s negotiations will be different because of the type of bargaining being carried out. Instead of position-based bargaining, the district and SEA are currently engaged in interest-based bargaining in which both teams bring important issues to the table and “work to find common ground,” according to SPS.

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SEA held a public rally at the John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence last Wednesday attended by around 500 people. SEA reps said they were surprised by the turnout — they ran out of sign-in sheets, according to Lehni. Members from the bargaining team spoke on issues including equity, health care for substitute teachers, compensation, and teacher-to-student ratios in special education classrooms.

“We are getting a ton of responses this morning on just how energizing it was, how great the speeches were, and how appreciative they were to hear from the bargaining team on what’s going on,” Campano said on Thursday.

While the expiring contract lasted three years, Campano said that they will negotiate the length of the contract until salary details are agreed upon.

SPS and SEA plan to engage in bargaining sessions nearly every day until the negotiating deadline to try to finalize a contract and avoid a strike. The next general membership meeting will be held on August 28, when the two sides hope to unveil an agreement.

“We are optimistic that the new contract will be concluded on time and will provide the best compensation package that we can afford and sustain,” SPS said.

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