EVERETT — These next 10 days are critical in determining whether thousands of students in Snohomish County will begin the new school year on time.
With teacher contracts expiring at midnight Aug. 31 in nearly every district in the county, negotiations on new collective bargaining agreements are intensifying.
Representatives of teacher unions and school districts have expressed confidence deals can get done and classes will start promptly after Labor Day per tradition.
But no one is making any promises. Talks this year are greatly complicated by a stash of new dollars and new rules as a result of the landmark school funding case known as McCleary.
The longer it takes to figure out how to spend the dollars and follow the rules feeds concern teachers will strike or carry out other work actions disrupting or delaying the first day of school.
Next week, most teacher unions are holding long-scheduled general membership meetings. Members would like to be ratifying agreements but could be contemplating their next steps.
“I am confident but I am getting more nervous every day,” said Randy Davis, president of the Marysville Education Association. “We know this is all a big change for people. We will bargain to the bitter end.”
The Marysville union and district have scheduled talks up to Aug. 29.
“We are anxious to come to an agreement with the Marysville Education Association, but we are confident in the bargaining process,” wrote Interim Marysville Schools Superintendent Jason Thompson in an email.
Jared Kink, president of the Everett Education Association, said usually by now accords on new contracts are wrapped up in at least a couple of districts in the county.
He likened the current situation to the calm before a storm. The union and district have their final scheduled negotiating session set for Monday.
“In Everett, as long as I’ve been on the bargaining team, we’ve found a way to get it done before school starts,” he said. “Like everywhere else, it’s all around salary. It’s a complicated piece with so many changes it’s taking longer than usual to work it all out.”
An Everett School District official said their leaders are committed to finding a solution but made no pledges on when it will wrap up.
“Bargaining this year has been especially complex with different interpretations of McCleary, but the negotiation teams are having productive conversations and making good progress,” said Diane Bradford, a district spokeswoman.
In the Snohomish School District, there have been 11 bargaining sessions — including one Sunday and another coming up Thursday.
“I am confident that our groups can come together before the first day of school,” Superintendent Kent Kultgen said.
Teachers in Edmonds and Mukilteo concluded their negotiations. But unlike most others, in those two districts teachers are under contract for another year. Those contracts are getting amended and a surge of new dollars is getting used to provide raises of around 13 percent in Mukilteo and up to 20 percent in Edmonds.
Those pay hikes are getting noticed by peers in surrounding districts.
“People’s expectations are high and they are growing,” said Justin Fox-Bailey, president of the Snohomish Education Association. “The tension is really becoming polarizing.”
In Everett, the union’s current contract assures the most experienced teachers earn the highest pay in the state. Members are proud of their standing, Kink said, and charged up by what they see happening elsewhere.
“I feel a tremendous amount of pressure from my members, probably more so than any time in the past,” he said.
None of this is unexpected.
Since the Supreme Court ruled in the 2012 McCleary decision that the state was not paying its share of the costs of public schools, lawmakers have boosted school funding by roughly $9 billion. That includes $2 billion in the current budget for educator salaries. Much of that money school officials and union leaders are discussing in collective bargaining talks.
Lawmakers sought to put in some sideboards on pay hikes. But they wound up treating salary setting differently for superintendents and administrators than for certificated teachers and classified staff, in the opinion of union leaders and Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal.
For the former, pay hikes are limited to 3.1 percent, which is the rate of inflation. For the latter, that same percentage is viewed as the base on which can be stacked increases for other categories such as experience.
Leaders of the Washington Education Association, the statewide teacher union, declared in March this surge in state funding would lead to classroom instructors getting pay raises of double-digit percentages, and it has.
But some districts have tied increases greater than 3.1 percent to additional requirements for teachers such as working more hours or more days.
District officials have also been resistant to offer large raises out of fear they won’t have the money in the future. A new state law will reduce local property tax levies for schools starting in 2019. Many of those dollars have gone to salaries and programs not funded by the state. There is widespread concern that unless they can get some of those dollars back, districts will face deficits three and four years from now.
Union leaders think districts are being overly cautious.
“The money is there,” said Andrea Miller, president of the Sultan Education Association. “We’re a big part of why they have the money. Our members were in the McCleary fight for 10 years. It’s disheartening to hear we’re limited by the cap.”