With less than three weeks until school starts, teachers in Evergreen Public Schools have not ratified a contract for the upcoming school year. Contract negotiations have stalled.
Superintendent John Deeder said in his 14 years at the district, he doesn’t remember being this close to the start of the school year without the teachers ratifying a contract.
“Honestly, it doesn’t make me nervous,” Deeder said. “We have to trust the process. I think we can get through the process.”
But the teachers union is not confident an agreement will be reached and school will start on time on Aug. 31. That’s the same day the current contract expires.
“We’re afraid we’re going to run out of time. The district is not working with us,” said Rob Lutz, president of the Evergreen Education Association.
“At this continued pace, we won’t get there. That’s what the mediator is for.”
Teachers will meet in a general membership meeting Aug. 30. Depending on how negotiations go, teachers will either be voting to ratify the contract or they will be voting to strike.
Help in reaching an agreement is on the way. After failing to agree on a contract during several bargaining sessions, Lutz requested a mediator provided by the state’s Public Employment Relations Commission.
“Both sides agree it’s time to bring in that neutral person who can move that conversation forward,” Deeder said.
Key points in the contract dispute involve salary and benefits; excessive workloads created by mandates; and a shortage of counselors and special education staff.
“We’ve been putting more special needs students into our regular education classrooms,” said Lutz. “We need support staff, materials and training for regular ed teachers to work with special ed students. The district is not working with us to solve that problem.”
Deeder said that one of the biggest sticking points is “the fact that the union wants more money, not just more salary and benefits, but more positions and not just next year, but on a continuing basis. There is not the kind of money they’re asking for. We put a chunk of money on the table and that’s been rejected.”
Evergreen teachers made between $40,417 and $76,179 in total compensation during the 2015-2016 school year. Without additional district money added to their pay through bargaining, district teachers would earn between $41,144 and $77,549 during the 2016-2017 school year. That bump in pay is the result of a raise from the state.
The state provides $780 a month for health insurance for each full-time employee, but the district doesn’t kick in any money for teachers’ health care premiums. Some districts do. As premiums rise, many Evergreen teachers pay hundreds of dollars out of pocket.
“Health insurance is definitely part of the salary package we’re discussing in the bargain,” said Lutz. “I’ve got plenty of members paying $800 and more out of pocket for health insurance premiums.”
Lutz said that on some early-release days, many district principals require teachers to create additional tests for students. Later during class, teachers are required to give those tests and report data back to administrators.
He said teachers would prefer the freedom to use their early-release time working on projects that will directly help students in the classroom.
“We want time to teach,” Lutz said. “Students are losing out because of it.”
The next scheduled bargaining session is Tuesday. Neither the union nor the district knows whether a state mediator will be assigned to the dispute by then.
The union represents more than 1,830 teachers. Evergreen is the largest school district in Southwest Washington and the fifth-largest in the state.
Deeder said that the state Legislature’s inability to comply with a state Supreme Court mandate to fully fund basic education is part of the problem.
“The Legislature hasn’t done their job,” Deeder said. “Therefore, the union is trying to make up for what they’ve lost in legislative action. The district isn’t in the position to meet all their demands. … I understand what the teachers are dealing with. We are going to continue to hammer out a deal that will make them happy.”
Lutz agreed that the union plans to stay at the negotiation table.
“We have concerns that if we don’t start moving, we’re going to run out of time,” Lutz said. “The goal is for the state mediator to be present at the next set of meetings beginning Aug. 16.”