Annual debate on teacher pay could end with this measure

By ERIC STEVICK

Herald Writer

With Initiative 732, teachers have taken their campaign for higher wages from the Capitol steps into taxpayers’ living rooms and, ultimately, the voting booth.

On Nov. 7, the state electorate will decide if it is willing to mandate an annual cost-of-living pay increase for all kindergarten-through-12th-grade employees, community college faculty and technical college faculty.

To its supporters, it is an investment meant to attract and keep good teachers; to its detractors, it is a recipe for inequity.

"The piece that you hear us emphasize right now is compensation," said Lee Ann Priellipp, president of the 68,000-member Washington Education Association. "We want to get people to be in the schools. Right now, it’s real easy to choose another walk of life for a career."

Statewide, the quality of some school programs could suffer in the next five to 10 years because of increasing teacher turnover, rising enrollments, out-of-state competition and tougher requirements for teacher candidates.

Nicole McGowan, a parent with two children at Picnic Elementary School in the Mukilteo School District, is co-chair of Citizens for Quality Educators, the pro-I-732 organization.

McGowan had hoped her son would get the same first-grade teacher her daughter had. Unfortunately, she said, the teacher left the public school system to teach for more money at a computer software company.

"I have spent a lot of time doing volunteer work in the school," McGowan said. "I have seen how hard they work and how ridiculously underpaid they are."

The average salary for Washington teachers in 1999 was $38,692, according to the National Education Association.

Under I-732, pay raises would be based on the Consumer Price Index compiled for Washington by the U.S. Department of Labor. Over the next two years, the initiative would cost the state $412 million, according to state budget analysts.

While there is no organized opposition, I-732 has its critics.

"Initiative 732 is disarmingly simple and alarmingly simplistic," concludes the Washington Research Council, a nonpartisan, public policy research organization that examines issues on behalf of businesses.

"It significantly weakens legislative oversight of the state budget, overstates the cost of living and provides a select group of public employees a benefit not available to most taxpayers," the research council said in a briefing paper.

Lynn McKinnon, governmental relations director for the Washington Public Employees Association, said I-732 is unfair to the 80,000 state employees who would not be covered. She pointed to a salary survey by the state Department of Personnel that found state employees on average lag 13 percent to 14 percent behind their peers doing the same jobs for other government branches.

"It drives a wedge between state-funded programs and state-funded employees," McKinnon said.

Priellipp said she understands the concern of state employees. At the same time, education has reached a critical point, topping many people’s lists of concerns, she said.

"We felt that this was the opportune time to be sure education gets to the forefront and stays there, and has the attention paid to it for the quality that is needed," Priellipp said.

Annette Barca, a math teacher at Cascade High School in Everett, won’t benefit if I-732 passes. She will retire at the end of the year after 33 years in education. But she still feels strongly that teachers, particularly those entering the profession, need more financial assurances than they have now.

"One of the key issues for a lot of the teachers is a reliable salary," she said. "As the cost of heat goes up or even the cost of gasoline, they want to know they are able to pay their bills."

The Washington Education Association and National Education Association have contributed more than 90 percent of the more than $1.1 million raised for the campaign, according to state Public Disclosure Commission records.

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