Arlington teachers may strike; others set to start on time

EVERETT — It has become a rite of August.

Bargaining for teacher contracts often leads up to and sometimes spills over into the beginning of the school year.

This year is no exception.

Seven Snohomish County school districts have been trying to iron out contracts. Most had reached tentative agreements as of Wednesday.

In Arlington, though, teachers said they were ready to strike if a tentative agreement is not reached with the school district soon. In a meeting Wednesday, 92 percent of the Arlington Education Association members who attended voted to authorize a strike.

“We still believe a fair contract settlement is possible before school starts; that’s our goal,” said Jason Klein, president of the Arlington Education Association, in an email Wednesday evening. “But it’s up to the superintendent to come to the table with a contract proposal that truly meets the needs of Arlington students and educators. We’ve been clear about that all along.”

Teachers have been preparing for school to start as normal, he said. However, the decision Wednesday evening could lead to uncertainty on the start date if an agreement can’t be reached within a week. The association’s focus in negotiations has been competitive pay and smaller class sizes, Klein said.

The rest of the county’s public schools are expected to begin as scheduled next week.

Complicating this year’s negotiations was a court-ordered, Legislature-approved overhaul of how the state pays for educating children in public schools.

In a court decision known as McCleary, Washington Supreme Court justices made clear the state needed to provide ample funding for education from a reliable and sustainable source of revenue, and to make sure school districts no longer rely on local property tax levies to pay employee salaries and other basic expenses.

The McCleary decision funnels more state money into education and reduces how much districts can ask in local levies. Many of the legislation’s major compensation-related changes go into effect Sept. 1, 2018, which means this year’s contract talks are the last using old salary formulas that have been around for decades. That is prompting some teacher unions to forgo their typical three-year contracts in favor of one-year agreements to see what shakes out.

Such was the case in the Snohomish School District, where teachers Tuesday approved a one-year deal with a 93 percent “yes” vote. The Snohomish School Board approved the contract Wednesday.

“It was just really hard to see beyond a one-year horizon given all the changes at the state level,” said Justin Fox-Bailey, president of the Snohomish Education Association, which has slightly fewer than 600 members. “This is the last year we are bargaining under the old rules.”

The contract passes through a 2.3 percent cost-of-living increase from the state and provides a 4.2 percent increase from local money, he said.

Some changes are written into the contract; others were a verbal meeting of the minds.

The district and teachers union made progress on class size issues that should, for instance, reduce the number of elementary school split classrooms that include students from different grade levels. The talks also begin to address class size issues in special education programs.

A new contract might be a relief, but there won’t be much time to savor it, given the new playing field that McCleary brings.

“We know we have to start almost immediately,” Fox-Bailey said.

The Edmonds Education Association, representing 1,500 teachers and other staff in the county’s largest school district, approved a new three-year contract Tuesday evening.

The Edmonds School Board was expected to approve the agreement Wednesday evening.

The new agreement calls for pay raises for teachers, more counselors, nurses and specialized staff in schools, and new limits on class sizes.

The salary increase will be determined by finding a midpoint among wages in nine area school districts, said Andi Nofziger-Meadows, president of the Edmonds Education Association. That won’t be finalized for several months, but teachers will receive back pay to the beginning of the year. Last year’s increase was just over 2.5 percent, she said.

Beginning this school year, each of the district’s elementary schools with a high number of students from low-income families will have full time counselors.

Also, elementary and kindergarten through eighth grade schools will have a minimum of one full-time counselor.

Nurses will be available in all schools this year to help with injuries, allergies, medications and illnesses.

The new Edmonds contract calls for more staffing for grades 4-12 in classrooms with students with special education needs or those who are English language learners.

Teachers in Marysville approved a tentative agreement Wednesday.

“It appears to us that local collective bargaining will be even more important in the future as we do not believe the McCleary question has been settled in totality,” said Randy Davis, president of the Marysville Education Association. “Regardless of how the court rules there will be a renewed emphasis on bargaining focusing on issues deemed to be extremely important” to the teachers and the district.

Teachers in Monroe are scheduled to vote on a tentative agreement Thursday.

“The negotiations have been positive, healthy and all parties are in agreement that the new contract reflects what is best for the students of Monroe,” said district spokeswoman Erin Zacharda. “We are planning to start school as scheduled.”

Stanwood-Camano teachers also are set to vote Thursday. A tentative agreement has been reached with both teachers and classified staff, human resources director Maurene Stanton said. School is expected to start on time next week.

One district with an open contract didn’t need to bargain over the summer.

Lake Stevens in May agreed to a one-year rollover contract. The pact provides a 3 percent pay increase for the 2017-18 school year and allows the district and teachers union to continue negotiations for the 2018-19 school year.

The agreement in Lake Stevens was reached before the Legislature approved its historic budget that addressed the Supreme Court mandate to overhaul how education is paid for statewide.

Under McCleary, starting pay for new teachers will be a minimum of $40,000 by the 2019-20 school year. And the state will fund an average salary of $64,000 for teachers, $95,000 for certificated administrative staff and $45,912 for classified staff by the 2019-20 school year.

Employees might be eligible for additional pay based on a variety of factors, including the subject matter they teach and the cost of living of where they work. This could lead to state-funded salaries of up to $90,000 for teachers, $121,839 for administrators and $58,883 for classified staff. The bill also requires regular annual adjustments for inflation.

Anyone earning more than the maximum amounts will not lose pay but they could see smaller pay hikes than lower-paid colleagues in future years.

Jerry Cornfield contributed to this story.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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