As school-funding fight winds down, teachers want ‘big’ raises

How does 15 percent sound? School districts are bracing for potentially difficult negotiations.

OLYMPIA — Washington public school teachers are ready to reap financial rewards from their long battle to increase state funding for education.

Union leaders are making no secret of their desire to win double-digit salary increases for teachers in contract negotiations getting under way in districts around the state.

Time to negotiate BIG pay raises for all” is the headline atop a March 28 update on the Washington Education Association website.

How large?

They’re talking 15 percent for all certificated staff — most of whom are classroom teachers — and 37 percent for the classified education support professionals they represent.

They contend it is a realistic goal based on the McCleary court case, in which parents and teachers successfully sued to force the state to amply fund basic education including wages of school employees.

Since the 2012 decision, lawmakers have boosted school funding by roughly $9 billion, including $1 billion this year and $1 billion last year for educator salaries. That’s money school districts will allot through collective bargaining agreements.

“This is our opportunity to keep and attract great educators for our students,” wrote WEA President Kim Mead, who is an Everett School District employee. “But it’s not a done deal; those funds still have to be bargained by every local association in the state.”

School district executives aren’t quite quaking in their seats by such comments. But they are bracing for potentially difficult negotiations. And they quietly are asking Democratic and Republican lawmakers for assistance, telling them their response to the McCleary lawsuit is what’s stoking the teachers’ fire.

See, McCleary isn’t just about money. It is also about transforming the manner and means of how dollars get spent to ensure the state covers its obligations, and that local property tax levies only pay for enrichment as originally envisioned.

Lawmakers wrote up changes into a comprehensive new law in 2017. This year they approved Senate Bill 6362 amending some provisions, including those surrounding salaries.

Here’s where it gets messy for negotiations.

The 2017 law boosted the starting salary for new teachers and set average salaries for teachers, staff and administrators to be paid for with state funds. And the law capped wage hikes for the upcoming 2018-19 school year — which is the period covered in most contracts getting negotiated — to no more than the percentage increase in the Seattle consumer price index.

This year’s law preserved the starting pay and average salary targets, and the one-time cap on increases, which turns out to be 3.1 percent.

But it does allow exceptions to the limit. Some districts, for example, might need a larger increase to get employees up to the average.

And lawmakers created another opportunity for large increases when they eliminated the state salary schedule, which spelled out what teachers would earn with additional years of experience and post-secondary education.

Districts are now drafting their own schedules and looking for agreement with teachers on their content. Union leaders see this as an opportunity to fill in steps with grander raises.

“We believe that the new law has given us an avenue to negotiate increases above 3.1 percent. Locals are going to the table now and illustrating to districts how they can exceed it,” said Jared Kink, president of Everett Education Association whose veteran teachers can earn a base salary of roughly $103,000. About a third of the amount is paid for with local tax dollars.

If large salary gains don’t occur this year, he said, they might next year because the law no longer limits increases.

“We need to let the bargaining process unfold,” he said. “This is a whole new world for everybody.”

Lawmakers understand the union’s posture and how eliminating the salary schedule might have opened the door wider than they intended. They also think their actions were clearly intended to limit the size of increases for most educators. Those new state dollars are to replace local money spent on salaries and programs rather than be treated as a windfall.

“We didn’t come out of the session saying everybody gets a raise,” said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, the lead Senate budget writer and one of those negotiating education policy bills. “We said every district will get more state money.”

She said she’ll be talking with other Democratic lawmakers this week on whether to weigh in as typically they steer very clear of the collective bargaining process.

“2018 is not supposed to be a raucous year for bargaining,” Rolfes said. “But it may turn out to be.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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