In Our View: Pay Cuts Reasonable

Until teachers union contracts are finalized, schools’ budget strategies cannot take shape

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When Washington’s Legislature this year cut funding for K-12 education, lawmakers assumed a 1.9 percent reduction in pay for teachers. Well, you know what they say happens when you assume. Politically speaking, the legislators’ assumption was a key tactic in overcoming a budget deficit, but history teaches that it’s unwise to assume anything about teachers unions.

Almost one month after the legislators adjourned their special session, budget writers for school districts continue to wrestle with cost reductions, and lingering contract negotiations with teachers unions only make matters worse. In the Vancouver school district, those negotiations aren’t even lingering; more like stalled. As The Columbian’s Howard Buck reported Thursday, the Vancouver Education Association and district leaders are at loggerheads. There have been few direct talks, and no discussions are expected until August. The teachers union president, Ann Giles, said that “right now, we’re a long way apart.”

In Evergreen Public Schools, the largest district in Clark County, contract talks are said to be progressing slowly, but steadily.

Typically in school districts, when contract agreements cannot be reached, the old contracts are extended. In rare cases, the two sides proceed to arbitration.

School district leaders will best serve students and taxpayers if they push aggressively in the contract negotiations. Expecting teachers to meet that legislative goal of a 1.9 percent pay cut is eminently reasonable.

In fact, the bar is set too low when compared to what’s happened in the private sector in recent years. And the sacrifice is tepid when compared with pay cuts of about 3 percent imposed on many nonteaching positions in public education. If teachers unions are unwilling to embrace the shared-sacrifice solution, then they are destined to suffer in other ways: through layoffs, additional cuts in programs and more crowded classrooms. Of course, union negotiators cannot be expected to do this on their own volition; that’s why district officials must remember their role as the taxpayers’ representatives at the bargaining table.

Evergreen Public Schools is looking at budget reductions between $9.5 million and $12 million. In the Vancouver district, officials anticipate budget cuts will total about $9.5 million. But these budget targets cannot be brought into focus until union contracts are finalized.

The legislative “solution” to the education-funding problem was really more like kicking the can down the road, to the district level where frantic school board members and budget writers have to pencil out the real solutions. Ultimately — and we’re talking long-term here — the proper solution must be formulated back in the Legislature.

Vancouver Superintendent Steven Webb accurately explained what is needed when he addressed a board work session on May 31: “This is the 10th consecutive budget cycle in which Vancouver Public Schools has faced a budget shortfall. Regrettably, we can expect these fiscal challenges to continue until the state fulfills its constitutional duty of providing full funding for basic education. State underfunded mandates continue to eat away at our local levy. We subsidize basic education expenses because of the structural deficit with state funding for K-12 schools, including employee compensation, non-employee related operational costs, transportation, special education and substitutes. The cumulative impact of budget cuts over the past decade is nearly $40 million.”

Until the Legislature meets that responsibility in the distant future, contract negotiations with teachers unions must focus on the reality of the Great Recession and the anguishing tardiness of any economic recovery.