Talk and tension rise over collective bargaining reform

OLYMPIA — Teachers in the Everett School District incited quite a stir with their talk of striking on the first day of school this fall if the education funding solution being negotiated by lawmakers doesn’t solve the problem.

They are gravely concerned that what is getting hammered out behind closed doors will seek to amply fund the public school system, as demanded by the state Supreme Court, and bring new rules on their ability to collectively bargain on wages and working conditions.

Since teachers from Everett and the state’s other 294 school districts are not in those talks, they’ve carried out an intensifying campaign of public actions the past two months to try to influence the conversations from the outside.

While Everett teachers are not the only ones warning about strikes, they are among the best paid in the state, which shines a brighter light on the concerns.

A teacher in Everett School District with 15 years experience and a master’s degree can earn, in round figures, an annual salary of around $100,000 under the current contract. The state covers around $70,000 and the school district takes care of the rest with money collected from local property tax levies.

For the Everett Education Association, it’s a product of collective bargaining and community support. Everett School Board members agree to those salaries and the electorate in Everett backs them up by approving levies necessary to handle the costs.

Meanwhile, in Olympia, a group of eight Democratic and Republican lawmakers are closing in on an agreement to comply with the court’s edict in the McCleary case. It will be a blueprint for how billions of additional dollars will be funneled into and spent by the education system with the biggest chunk going to cover the portion of teacher, staff and administrator salaries now paid by local taxpayers.

State law is likely to be tweaked to make clear how state and local dollars can be used going forward. That’s triggering talk, and tension, on potential revisions in the collective bargaining process.

Teachers see no need for change. But those traditionally on the other side of the table — superintendents and school board directors — are urging, to the point of begging, lawmakers to do something.

On March 23, superintendents of 32 school districts in Snohomish, Island, Skagit, Whatcom and San Juan counties asked lawmakers in a letter to impose “guardrails” or “bumpers” to bar bargaining of local levy dollars for basic education “duties and responsibilities.” They also requested “clear and specific limitations” on exactly how those local dollars can and cannot be spent.

And they warned that “absent a reform of collective bargaining as it currently exists, a regression to the current unconstitutional funding system at some point in the future is a certainty.”

On May 24, a coalition of groups, including ones representing school directors, principals and administrators, issued a statement with a similar request.

“At a minimum, statutory limitations must be in place, for future collective bargaining agreements, that prohibit bargaining of local levy resources for basic education duties and responsibilities,” according to the statement.

Kim Mead, president of the Washington Education Association, pushed back hard Monday.

“There is nothing we’re going to accept that would take away our collective bargaining rights,” said Mead, a former leader of the Everett Education Association. “I don’t think they understand what they’re giving up.”

What angered teachers most is the implication in the superintendents’ missive that collective bargaining is to blame for the state’s failure to properly pay for public schools.

“We take offense to that kind of language,” said Randy Davis, president of the Marysville Education Association. “The underfunding of schools is the state not doing its paramount duty.”

A teachers strike is a last and undesired resort, said union leaders. It also is not allowed under most, if not all, collective bargaining agreements, including in Everett.

They also said that won’t stop teachers, who insist they will retain the right to decide when enough is enough.

It’s up to lawmakers now if it reaches that point.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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