Leslie Kelley asks a question during the meeting of the Everett Education Association on Thursday afternoon at Cascade High School in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Everett teachers ready to strike if bargaining rights limited

EVERETT — Several hundred Everett school teachers made clear Thursday they are prepared to strike if state lawmakers fail to fund public schools adequately and pay classroom instructors fairly.

“There is a very good potential that we could be taking action that would disrupt the start of the school year,” said Jared Kink, president of the Everett Education Association, which represents 1,100 certificated teachers in the Everett School District.

Roughly 300 union members gathered in the Cascade High School gymnasium to voice support for a resolution authorizing a walkout or strike in the event of an unsatisfactory resolution from Olympia on the long-running fight on public school funding.

Everett teachers are among the highest paid in the state and Kink said that the union has a lot to lose.

Thursday’s vote was to set a general membership meeting by Aug. 15 if the Legislature fails to pass a budget or takes some action to curb the union’s right to strike.

“I would expect to call a strike at that meeting,” Kink said.

Similar votes are planned at other districts around the state, with the Mukilteo Education Association holding one at 3:30 p.m. Friday at Mariner High School.

The Everett teachers’ voice vote was unanimous and accompanied by cheers.

“It’s a warning that we mean business,” said Heidi Little, a director for the union’s executive committee.

The supportive mood wasn’t without some pensiveness.

Cascade chemistry teacher Gary Wood said that important business, such as AP exams, won’t wait if a strike delays the start of the school year.

“A work stoppage kind of hurts kids, and that would be a last resort,” Wood said.

He said that he was content with his pay, but he’d like to see more money provided for equipment. “My computers are in shambles,” Wood said.

Hailey Riehl, who teaches fourth and fifth grades at Forest View Elementary, said she was pleased with the union’s decision.

“I think that if worse comes to worst we’ll stand together and fight for what’s right for the kids,” Riehl said. “And if that means we walk out, we’ll walk out.”

Under the 2012 decision in the McCleary case, the state Supreme Court found the state was failing to meet its constitutional duty to amply fund education, which forced school districts to use local property tax levies to make up the difference.

The court has given the state until Sept. 1, 2018, to fix the problem. It also ordered the Legislature to deliver justices a plan for how they intend to do that. Lawmakers’ failure to do so resulted in the court finding them in contempt and levying a $100,000-a-day fine.

Lawmakers have increased education spending in excess of $2 billion since the ruling. The largest financial piece remains, which is figuring out how much money the state must provide school districts to cover salaries of teachers, staff and administrators involved in basic education. School districts currently pay a big chunk of those salaries with local property-tax levies.

The challenge is especially formidable in Snohomish County where the most experienced teachers earn the highest pay in the state with the help of levy dollars. Everett School District tops the list as teachers with 29 years experience and a master’s degree can make $103,000 this school year under the union contract. That’s $30,000 a year more than their peers in many other districts around the state, according to figures compiled in 2016 by the Washington Education Association.

In Olympia, disagreement on how much more money is needed and where will it come from has pushed lawmakers into a second special session. They need to answer those questions before they can finish work on a new two-year state operating budget.

Since March, two members from the Democratic and Republican caucuses in the House and Senate have been negotiating how the state will clear the final McCleary hurdles. They held another round of talks Thursday afternoon.

“We continue to make progress. We’re working hard to close the deal,” said House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, one of the participants.

As for the action of Everett teachers, he said: “I’m not going to tell them what to do. Until we have a final agreement, it’s probably premature.”

The final legislative agreement will result in changes in state law and how school districts use money collected from local property tax levies, Sullivan said.

As to collective bargaining, he declined to say if there could be new limits or restrictions on the process.

The plan passed by Senate Republicans in February called for changes in the process of evaluating and disciplining teachers. It also would allow districts to use non-certificated instructors in classrooms and it barred teacher strikes.

On compensation, it didn’t eliminate collective bargaining. But it could limit teachers’ ability to negotiate for supplemental earnings known as TRI pay because it says salaries for all school personnel combined cannot exceed 80 percent of a district’s total expenditures.

Democrats in the House and Senate are pushing back on this limit.

There will be “opportunities” for Time, Responsibility and Incentive (TRI) pay, Sullivan said. But it will need to be directly related to additional work and not basic education because that is the state’s obligation, he said.

That could create a problem, Kink said.

“We’ll be arguing about what basic education is and means,” he said.

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

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