After Delay and Conflict, Seattle Teachers Approve New Contract

As the start of school year approached in Seattle, teachers voted on Aug. 26 against accepting a new contract proposal, according to Linda Shaw of Seattle Times. The vote was nearly unanimous among the 1,810 union members at a general membership meeting. In all, the union has about 5,000 members, according to Seattle Education Association President Jonathan Knapp.

But on Tuesday, the teachers finally approved a new contract that narrowly averted a potential strike.

The school district recently had withdrawn a controversial proposal to increase class size in grades 4 through 12, which was the biggest sticking point in the negotiations. The disagreements involved the use of test scores in evaluating teachers — whether to add 30 minutes to the workday of elementary-school teachers and whether to change the size of caseloads of school employees such as therapists, psychologists and nurses.

Superintendent José Banda said that he was disappointed about what union negotiators did after the district withdrew the class-size proposal.

“I really thought we were close to an agreement, but then all of a sudden … there was a determination that our offer was no longer considered something that they would be willing to move forward,” he said.

According to Knapp, the union opposed the district’s plan to add 30 minutes to the workday of elementary teachers because it would result in a 2.6% pay cut for those teachers. “The union does not object to a longer day, but it wants the extra time to be class time.” The district wants teachers to use the additional minutes to analyze data on student performance and collaborate on lesson plans.

In addition, Knapp said the union wanted a two-year moratorium on using student test scores in teacher evaluations.

The new contract, however, addresses both pay and assessment — though it appears that the compromise left Seattle’s teachers wanting:

No teacher seemed entirely happy with the contract, but a majority decided it was good enough, with a 2 percent raise for the 2013-14 school year, 2.5 percent in the year after, and a couple of other changes that will add another 1.8 percent as well. The contract also included compromises on a number of other issues, too, including the use of test scores in judging how well teachers do their jobs.

The union and the district agreed in the last teacher contract that student test scores could be a part of judging teacher performance, and the district already has started to do so. But now the union is asking the district to suspend that practice for two years, citing the fact that Washington students soon will be taking a new set of exams tied to new Common Core learning standards.

There are also questions about how best to use student performance to evaluate teachers who do not teach subjects covered by state tests. “This is a perfect window of opportunity for us to work on those issues together with the district,” Knapp said.

Seattle teachers saw their contract expire on August 31, and they could have agreed to work long after that deadline. The teachers union also could have decided to strike, but instead chose to ratify the new contract.

According to Linda Shaw of The Seattle Times, teachers estimated that as many as 40% voted no on the contract.

It has been a tumultuous year for Seattle’s teachers. In April this year, the school district officials announced that Seattle school teachers who boycotted state standardized exams would not be penalized.

Staff and students at several schools throughout the city refused to go along with the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) test because they claimed it aligned poorly with Washington’s academic curriculum and would have a negative impact on teachers’ professional assessment. Although the protesting teachers were initially threatened with punishment by district officials – up to 10 days of unpaid leave – after shifting their stance several times, including to a point of saying that only the teachers failing to administer the test would be disciplined and not those merely protesting, officials announced that no punishment would be forthcoming.