Seattle Teachers End Strike, But Questions Remain on Funding


It's official — Seattle's teachers are back to work. The Seattle Education Association has reached an agreement with the Seattle Public School District and the resulting contract was officially approved on Sunday, according to KIRO-TV Seattle.

Over 3,000 teachers and school employees voted to approve the three-year contract at a meeting in downtown Seattle that began in the afternoon and ended later in the evening.

The meeting included ‘yes' votes from 83% of teachers, 87% of paraprofessionals, and 96% of office professionals. The Seattle Education Association represents 5,000 teachers and other employees in the school district, writes Paige Cornwell of The Seattle Times.

Union President Jonathan Knapp said that the contract was "groundbreaking and far-reaching," and that it "changed the landscape of bargaining." The union's vice president and chair of bargaining, Phyllis Campano, added that members asked what they could do to make sure that the students got what they deserved to get.

"This is a great first step for our kids in Seattle," said Campano, a special-education teacher.

This union meeting had the highest attendance number of any in its history. Now, it is time for advocacy groups to begin discussions with with state lawmakers, who have been sanctioned by the Supreme Court for failing to create a plan for full funding of state public education, which had been mandated by the 2012 McCleary decision.

School for Seattle's 53,000 students was to begin on September 9, but when contract negotiations stalled, the strike delayed the opening until September 17. Although there was a tentative agreement last Tuesday morning when the union's board of directors and its representative agreed to recommend the contract to the general membership, the strike was suspended until the vote on Sunday.

When union members gathered at Benaroya Hall, a group of supporters held signs of support.

"For those who have been feeling like they might say no, we really want them to know we have their back, because that's a hard decision to make," said Doug Balcom, whose daughter attends Jane Addams Middle School.

The audience at the meeting gave the bargaining team a standing ovation. Still, many believe the agreement is far from perfect. The pay increase is not what was first suggested by the union and student-teacher ratios in special education classes also fall short of initial demands. If union members had voted not to accept the agreement, however, the strike could have continued.

Stalled contract negotiations led to a teachers' strike in Seattle in 1985.

As a result of the negotiations, teachers will receive raises at levels that have not been seen in recent years. This is partly because included in the raises is a voter-approved cost-of-living increase in Seattle and around the state that the Legislature has not funded in six years.

The McCleary decision also mandates that the state pick up the full cost of paying teachers.

"One of the assumptions that we're making is that what teachers are paid currently is a competitive salary," said state Rep. Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah, ranking member of the House Education Committee. "So however that rises with this latest round of collective bargaining, that sets a higher bar for us to match with state funding."

John Higgins writes for The Seattle Times that the way teachers in Washington are paid is "mind-numbingly complicated." In most cases, local districts pick up about 23% of the total cost of paying teachers, but this varies from district to district, says the Washington Association of School Administrators. Because of the new contract, beginning teachers would be paid about $35,305 a year plus an additional amount averaging about $11,000 from Seattle Public Schools.

But this may not be enough to persuade a recent college graduate to pursue a career in education. A 2012 report found that total salaries for state teachers (state plus local funding) were competitive in most parts of Washington, and with benefits, at that time the salaries seemed generous.

However, Washington's state-funded basic pay is still lower than in most other states. Lawmakers stated they would not be bound by the 2012 report, and Governor Jay Inslee has said that a bipartisan group of legislators has been organized to find a compromise.

Stephen Nielsen, Assistant Superintendent of the Puget Sound Educational Service District and one of the report's authors, states:

"They are basically bargaining against the state. They want this big number from Seattle so that when they next have to bargain with the Legislature, then the Legislature has this very high bar to meet."

Nielsen added that the strikes in the state this summer point out the contradiction in how the state of Washington pays for education by, "requiring the state to pay for it, but giving school districts control over spending it."

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