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School districts, teachers continue contract talks

August 25, 2018
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Mount Vernon teachers and their supporters rally Thursday outside the Mount Vernon School District offices along Fourth Street in Mount Vernon.

Not many people attend the average school board meeting, but on Thursday evening 68 Anacortes teachers and supporters filed into a board meeting in the Anacortes Middle School library.

Many were wearing red to show their support for teachers.

“Anacortes is a quality school district that I’m proud to be a part of,” said Anacortes High School science teacher Victor Garcia. “Please help to keep this district competitive and comparable. Please help keep this district somewhere we can all be proud of.”

Like other districts throughout the county and state, the Anacortes School District and its teachers union are in the midst of contract negotiations, the likes of which have not been seen in recent history.

“It feels like the rules have all changed and we’re trying to figure out what they are.” La Conner School District Superintendent Whitney Meissner said.

Of the seven public school districts in Skagit County, only the Sedro-Woolley district has a contract with its teachers for the upcoming school year.

Earlier in the day Thursday, while contract negotiations were being held in the Mount Vernon School District administration office, hundreds of supporters of the district’s teachers stood outside the building, wearing red and waving signs demanding a fair contract.

“We want fair compensation,” said Heather Farren, a science teacher at Mount Vernon High School and a representative of the Mount Vernon Education Association.

In themselves, contract negotiations between districts and its various unions are not unusual. What is unusual is that this year the state required all of the state’s 295 school districts to negotiate contracts.

As a result of the so-called “McCleary fix” — the state’s response to the 2012 state Supreme Court ruling that the state was not adequately funding basic education — the Legislature this year raised the statewide property tax and is pouring millions of dollars more into local school districts with the intent to adequately fund basic education and, especially this year, increase teacher salaries.

“We have fought hand-in-hand with our district to make this happen,” Mount Vernon Education Association President Cheryl Thramer said at a recent school board meeting. “After a fight that has lasted 11 years, the Legislature has finally shown us. They have come through for public education.”

While the state is increasing funding this year, next year it will reduce the amount that districts can collect from their local tax bases.

According to four-year budget projections now required by the state, that loss means many districts will soon find themselves in the red and are therefore hesitant to negotiate large salary increases with their respective unions.

Further complicating matters is that as part of the McCleary Fix the state threw out its salary schedule, meaning each of the districts and their teachers unions must now create a new one.

“The intent of McCleary is to level the playing field,” said Sedro-Woolley School District Human Resources Director Darrell Heisler. “I’m not sure they hit that mark yet. With the changing landscape right now it’s somewhat of a puzzle.”

While language in the McCleary legislation seemed to limit districts to offering a 3.1 percent salary increase, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal weighed in by stating that was not the case and that each district would have to bargain with its local union to come to an agreement.

“We will not offer additional guidance related to collective bargaining or weigh in on specific collective bargaining proposals,” Reykdal stated in a recent memo. “At the end of the day, this is a local collective bargaining state and where you get to at the local table is likely the most appropriate answer for your district and your local community.”

With that guidance, the Sedro-Woolley School District went to the table prepared to offer more than 3.1 percent, Heisler said.

“Once we got that clarification, we had to decide how much of that new money is really for teacher’s salaries, how much is for other things, how much could we actually spend and looking forward, is it sustainable,” Heisler said. “We’re always putting ourselves in a position to not break the bank.”

Last week, the Sedro-Woolley School District and the Sedro-Woolley Education Association came to an agreement that sees the average salary increase by 17.7 percent, according to the Washington Education Association (WEA).

That brings the district’s minimum salary to $54,233, according to the WEA.

“It’s a life-changing event,” said Cindy Brune, president of the Sedro-Woolley Education Association. “It’s historical, we’ve never seen anything like this.”

Statewide, as part of the McCleary Fix, the Legislature has increased teacher minimum pay to $40,000.

The Sedro-Woolley district is the first north of Edmonds to settle with its teachers union, Brune said.

“We both were committed to work together to get it done,” she said. “We worked very collaboratively and we really felt like our school board and our school district administrators wanted the best for teachers.”

The Sedro-Woolley School Board is set to approve the contract at its Monday board meeting, Heisler said.

Meanwhile, Skagit County’s six other public school districts remain in negotiations — and are looking at Sedro-Woolley as an example.

“The teachers that I work with in this district are so committed,” Farren said. “Our teachers are super, super involved. We want what’s best for kids. We also want our district to recognize our need for professional pay.”

On Wednesday, Reykdal sent another memo re-establishing his position that districts can go above the 3.1 percent increase, but that whatever agreement the districts come to must be sustainable.

“Not every district will have an equal opportunity to provide compensation increases with double-digit percentages,” he stated.

In his letter, Reykdal outlined four “risk factors” for districts to pay attention to during negotiations, including how much money a district will lose in its local levy dollars and whether its teachers were already paid at or near the new state allocation.

In a letter sent out on Thursday, the Mount Vernon School District said it was one of 17 districts statewide that would be affected by all four factors.

“Like most districts, we have relied on our local levy to fund increases for staff,” the letter states. “Our instructional staff are at the heart of our schools. We are committed to providing them with the competitive and fair wage they deserve, while ensuring our ability to sustain increases over time.”

If contracts are not in place by the time they expire on Aug. 31, the teachers unions may decide to strike, which is what the Stanwood-Camano Education Association chose to do Thursday.

The La Conner School District starts school on Aug. 29. All other Skagit County public school districts start the following week.

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