RIDGEFIELD — Members of the Ridgefield Education Association overwhelmingly voted to approve a strike Friday night.
At a general membership meeting at the Ridgefield Community Center, 97.8 percent of the 135 members present voted to approve the strike. That represents about 80 percent of the total union membership, according to the association’s bargaining team.
“I’m impressed with our teachers’ bravery,” said Alan Adams, president-elect of the union. “This is a difficult thing for them to do. They want to do what’s best for our kids and for the community.”
The strike would start Aug. 29, the first scheduled day of classes. Until then, the union and district will continue to hold bargaining sessions to try to work out a new teacher contract.
Adams said teachers will be encouraged to keep preparing for the start of the school year as if it’s going to take place on its scheduled day. That means teachers will still attend pre-service days and prepare their classrooms for the start of school. The bargaining sessions are scheduled for Friday and for Aug. 28. Adams said they’re trying to find other days that could work for bargaining. At the school district’s request, a state mediator will attend both scheduled sessions.
“The district requested a state mediator when it became clear there was very little movement toward an agreement,” Superintendent Nathan McCann said.
The two sides are working on a new teacher contract during a tension-filled summer in the state, as all school districts are negotiating new teacher pay schedules thanks to the McCleary decision, a Supreme Court case that determined Washington was failing to fully fund basic education.
Ridgefield is the first district in the county to hold a strike vote. Earlier on Friday, teachers in Woodland became the first in the county to approve a new deal.
Due to McCleary, the state allocated $7.3 billion to the state school system last year, and the Legislature added another nearly $1 billion for teacher salaries this year. The Washington Education Association is pushing its membership to ask for 15 percent raises for certificated teachers, and 37 percent raises for the classified support staff represented by some teachers unions.
“It isn’t just about money,” Adams said. “It’s about how we do our job.”
The union and district are at odds over a few items other than teacher pay, such as class sizes, case loads and staffing in the special education program, and a guaranteed voice in the curriculum adoption process.
The two sides have gone back and forth online in recent days. The district sent a letter home to families on Thursday updating the bargaining process, and the union took issue with some claims in the letter. The union posted a response on Facebook, and during the union’s membership meeting Friday, the district posted a response to that response.
In the district’s initial letter, it says the district has proposed a certificated salary schedule that includes an average raise of 15.04 percent for the upcoming 2018-2019 school year, which would increase the average teacher salary to $73,302 this year. The union’s response said the district arrived at those numbers by “”guessing at the actual cost to pay 35 of its teachers.” The district’s response said that originally the district forecasted those numbers using information available in June, when districts leaders put together the budget. The district has since learned that some new hires should be placed in a higher salary cell.
“We want to pay very competitive wages,” McCann said. “We believe this contract proposal has a very competitive salary. That’s been Ridgefield’s commitment from Day One.”
McCann said that new teacher induction in the district has already started, and he has been pleased to see that some veteran teachers have been involved. He hopes that while the two sides work on a new contract, everyone can leave their differences at the bargaining table.
The union’s bargaining team said the relationship feels a bit strained right now.
“I worked really hard to foster a good relationship with the district,” said Joe Thayer, outgoing union president. “For a long time, there was a collaborative relationship.”