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News / Clark County News

Salary standoff sizzles in Clark County schools

Teacher unions, school districts remain at odds over raises amid protests, heated collective bargaining across state

By Katie Gillespie, Columbian Education Reporter, and
Adam Littman, Columbian Staff Writer
Published: August 19, 2018, 6:02am
5 Photos
Evergreen Education Association union members and supporters protest while attending an Evergreen Public School Board meeting on Tuesday evening.
Evergreen Education Association union members and supporters protest while attending an Evergreen Public School Board meeting on Tuesday evening. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

In the heat and haze Tuesday, hundreds of Evergreen Public Schools teachers protested outside district administrative offices and stormed the school board meeting. It was the same story across town at the Vancouver Public Schools’ board meeting, where an estimated 400 teachers demonstrated in favor of increased wages.

It’s a scene that’s played out at school board meetings across Clark County all summer. Teachers have come wearing their bright red union T-shirts. They’ve tailgated, held picnics and stood on street corners. They’ve waved signs with slogans such as “Keep the McCleary promise,” “Bargain for salaries,” and “Only U can prevent a teacher strike.”

Yet as the first day of school draws near, the area’s school districts and their teacher unions remain at odds over raises. It’s the side effect of two years of legislation intended to fix school funding, and it’s resulted in heated collective bargaining in Clark County and across the state.

“We literally have every district at the table,” said Chris Reykdal, Washington’s superintendent of public instruction.

Where things stand with union negotiations

With only about a week remaining until most Clark County public schools are scheduled to start the new school year, there is still a lot of distance to make up between the districts and their respective teacher unions.

So far, only teachers in Woodland have a new contract in place, as the union voted Friday in favor of a deal that gives them a 22.82 percent increase in base pay, netting teachers an overall 12.5 percent increase in total salary package from the previous year.

On Friday, teachers in Ridgefield called for a strike, with 97.8 percent of the 135 union members at a general membership meeting voting in favor. The two sides will continue to bargain until the first day of classes, scheduled for Aug. 29. If no agreement is in place, the teachers will strike. Ridgefield was the first district to hold a strike vote in Clark County this summer.

Here’s a look at where all of the negotiations sit heading into the last full week of summer.

Vancouver Public Schools

At the Vancouver Education Association’s general membership meeting Thursday night, the bargaining team told union members they couldn’t recommend the district’s latest offer, which was a three-year deal with about a 9 percent pay increase this year and smaller increases in the next two years, according to Rick Wilson, executive director of the teachers union. The district and the union are negotiating the entire teacher contract, unlike most other local districts, which are only debating salaries. Because of that, the union also opened up a vote Thursday night to ask members if they are willing to start the school year without a new contract. The electronic vote is open until midday Monday. Friday afternoon, the district posted a letter to families on its website saying that the union “released a ballot to its members (Thursday) that considers the possibility of an illegal strike, or work stoppage. If (union) leaders decide to enact a strike, it could affect the beginning of this school year, possibly causing a delay in the opening of our schools.”

Evergreen Public Schools

Evergreen most recently offered teachers a salary range of $50,687 to $96,044. That’s closer than the district has come previously to the union’s proposed pay range of $56,631 to $96,893. Evergreen Education Association members have a general membership meeting Thursday, where they’re expected to vote on a contract settlement or potentially to strike.

Battle Ground Public Schools

Battle Ground Public Schools has another bargaining session today, and union teachers will hold a general membership meeting Tuesday. The district has proposed raises that would bring the average teacher’s salary to $72,450, while the union is asking for an average salary of $86,760.

Camas School District

The district and union have a bargaining session scheduled for Tuesday, and have a few more planned. The union is looking to Aug. 27, when it plans to hold a vote to ratify a new salary pact, or vote to go on strike if there’s no agreement. Mark Gardner, Camas Education Association lead negotiator and past president, said the two sides are inching closer, “but the gap is still wide” after the last bargaining session.

Washougal School District

In addition to increasing teacher salaries, the Washougal Education Association is looking to reduce class sizes and make changes that will lead to more teacher retention. Earlier in negotiations, there was some disagreement between the two sides after the district put out a statement saying they were discussing a 15 percent increase from the 2017-18 school year in professional salary by combining the previous base salary with pay for responsibility and incentive pay, or TRI pay. The union said that was disingenuous. Eric Engebretson, president of the union, said there is no date picked for a potential strike vote, but one can happen at any general membership meeting during negotiations. The next general membership meeting is Tuesday.

Ridgefield School District

The Ridgefield Education Association and Ridgefield School District have two bargaining sessions planned before the start of school, and both will have a state mediator present, as requested by the district. The two sides are negotiating an entirely new contract this summer, and are facing off over multiple issues beyond salary, such as class size, caseloads and staffing in the special education program and ensuring teachers are part of the curriculum adoption process. Teachers voted Friday to strike if no contract is reached by the first day of school.

La Center School District

A union representative could not be reached for comment last week. Classes are set to begin Aug. 29.

Woodland Public Schools

The two sides negotiated a 22.82 percent increase in base salary, which nets a roughly 12.5 increase in overall salary compensation from the year prior. Union members voted in favor of the new agreement on Friday. The increase in Woodland comes from an 11 percent local enhancement from state funds, and an additional 10.6 percent raise, according to Superintendent Michael Green.

Hockinson School District

Megan Miles, co-president of the Hockinson Education Association, said union teachers have been waiting on a McCleary decision for more than a decade, and now they want to make sure they get the compensation they believe they deserve. The two sides have a bargaining session scheduled for Monday, and have a meeting scheduled for Tuesday, when they anticipate voting to either ratify a new agreement or vote to strike.

Green Mountain

School District

The two sides started meeting within the last two weeks to negotiate a new contract.

Union presidents have threatened strikes and protests, citing the $1 billion flowing from the Washington state Legislature earmarked for teacher salaries. That was the last piece bringing the state into compliance with the Washington Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary school funding decision, and it has the Washington Education Association pushing districts to grant big raises.

“They’re offering us an insulting number as a raise,” said Margaret Hunter, a Covington Middle School art teacher, of Evergreen Public School’s current offer. “I’m just here to get the paycheck we worked hard for.”

But local districts maintain they simply do not have the money to meet the double-digit raises teachers are fighting for. District officials say the union’s proposals are neither feasible nor sustainable.

“We have this financial analysis, and we’re saying, ‘not a good future,’ ” said John Steach, superintendent of Evergreen Public Schools, the county’s largest district.

Not all winners

At first, school districts were cautiously optimistic that McCleary legislation would result in significant allocation increases. After all, with an additional $7.3 billion coming into the state education system over four years, as well as an additional $1 billion earmarked for salaries this year, it seemed a rosy picture.

But as the realities of the decision are playing out, Clark County administrators have described our region as worse off than other parts of the state.

According to the nonpartisan League of Education Voters, Clark County districts can expect to see increases in total state funding peaking at 15 percent in the Ridgefield School District. Vancouver Public Schools and Evergreen Public Schools will see permanent increases of 12 and 9 percent, respectively.

Some Puget Sound districts will see significantly greater increases. The Lake Washington School District will see a 29 percent increase in funding and will spend an aggregated additional 15.2 percent on salaries, according to union leadership in that district, which serves wealthy suburbs east of Seattle. According to the Washington Education Association, that equates to average raises of 12.2 percent.

Near Woodland, the Green Mountain School District is one of few in the state actually expected to lose money in the deal. Green Mountain — a one-building, K-8 district with nine teachers, 10 classified staff and an estimated 155 students expected to start out the year — might struggle in the next few years under the new state funding model, Superintendent Tyson Vogeler said.

“The intention of the legislators was good,” he said. “It’s just a very complex issue to write a formula that fairly funds 295 districts. They all have their unique qualities. It puts us in a little bit of a bind.”

As part of the new model, districts wrote budget projections for the next four years. Vogeler said Green Mountain could have to dip into its reserves to make up about $50,000 as soon as the 2019-2020 school year. According to state estimates, the district is expected to receive state funding of $12,207 per child this upcoming school year, followed by $11,690 per student in 2019-2020 and $11,980 in 2020-2021. That would give the district a loss of $150 per student in funding from the 2017-2018 school year, making Green Mountain one of five districts in the state to see a loss during that three-year period, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The McCleary decision also limited the amount districts could receive through local levies, which only deepens the issue for Green Mountain. Vogeler said the district received about $3,400 per student through levy money this past school year. The projection is that local levy amount is going to drop nearly 50 percent in the 2019-2020 school year with the new limitations.

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“That decrease is not completely offset by the increases in state money,” he said.

That has the district planning to dip into reserves. Green Mountain has built its savings in the last three years, and tries to keep enough money to fund the district for 60 days. For Green Mountain, $50,000 is about 10 percent of its reserves.

Reykdal said there’s “no question” that the McCleary legislation created winners and losers. He addressed the inequities in a letter to legislators last month.

“Unfortunately, there are massive differences in opportunities across the state for compensation changes. Because of more state funds, large regionalization amounts, and even some additional resources for the new experience factor, some districts have the resources to give substantial increases within the parameters you set.”

Sustainability questioned

The result, as this summer has shown, is significant gaps between what school districts say they can afford and the raises unions are seeking. The Washington Education Association, the state teachers union, called on all member unions to fight for 15 percent raises.

Local officials say raises that high aren’t sustainable here.

Take Battle Ground Public Schools, for example. In that district, the teachers union’s proposal would result in average total salaries of $86,760 — a 30.1 percent increase from last year’s salary. Battle Ground’s offer, meanwhile, would give average salaries of $72,450, an 8.6 percent increase.

“I think educators have reached the point of saying ‘I know I’m a social worker, I know I’m a counselor, I know I’m a mentor, I know I’m all those things, but I’m also an educator and I can’t keep doing it for free,’ ” said Linda Peterson, president of the Battle Ground Education Association.

But Superintendent Mark Ross said raises at that level are not sustainable and will drive the district into a deficit. A deficit could result in significant spending cuts.

“(We would be) taking money out of curriculum, laying off staff, taking money out of maintenance,” Ross said. “We’re still going to be looking at a loss.”

Evergreen Public Schools has offered its teachers pay ranging from $50,687 to $96,044, depending on experience. In most cases, teachers would see a 7.7 percent raise. The teachers’ union, meanwhile, has proposed a pay range of $56,631 for new teachers to $96,893 for the most experienced teachers.

The district projects that accepting the union’s offer would result in a $53 million deficit by the 2021-2022 school year.

“In the resolution of McCleary, we were not winners in terms of dollar amount,” said Mike Merlino, Evergreen’s chief operating officer.

State Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, said that districts should be spending their new dollars on teacher pay. That’s what the Legislature voted to support, and what the state Supreme Court mandated.

“There should be no question that’s intended for compensation,” Stonier said.

But that may look different from district to district, said Stonier, vice chair of the House Education Committee. In some Clark County’s districts, double-digit raises are likely unfeasible.

“I think that would be a really high bar to meet in Southwest Washington and still have a sustainable budget,” said Stonier, a former middle school teacher. “But some of the offers I’ve seen have been too low.”

What happens next

Mark Gardner, the Camas Education Association’s lead negotiator and past president, said the tense negotiations have formed a rift between the district and the union, where both sides had proudly discussed their collaborative relationship in recent years.

“We’re past the stage of dismay and disappointment,” he said. “It is becoming true anger and a sense of being disrespected by our leadership.”

Gardner said he and his fellow bargaining team members felt like they were being treated like line items in a budget, like a problem that needs to be solved.

“There’s some goodwill being burned where people are realizing maybe they’re not as valued as they thought,” he said.

Alan Adams, president-elect of the Ridgefield Education Association, said the bargaining process has been stressful for both sides.

“I think there’s going to be a need for some sort of healing after the negotiating process is done,” he said.

Adams said that’s a common feeling amongst plenty of districts in the region, as representatives from various unions around Southwest Washington have met regularly to discuss their respective negotiations and frustrations.

“We’re all in the same boat,” he said. “We’re all united.”

On Friday, Ridgefield became the first union in the county to hold a strike vote, with 97.8 percent of members present voting to approve a strike. The two sides will continue to bargain, but if no agreement is reached, the strike is scheduled to start on the first day of classes, which is Aug. 29 in Ridgefield.

District leaders fear what impact strikes may have on relationships within the district. At Evergreen, Steach said a strike vote could set the district “back years.”

“It would damage relationships,” he said. “And relationships are the life blood of a school district.”

Woodland Public Schools and the Woodland Education Association came to a new agreement on a salary schedule at their Aug. 12 bargaining session. The union voted Friday in favor of the agreement, which will give teachers in the district a 22.82 percent increase in their base salary, and a roughly 12.5 percent increase in total salary compensation after factoring in a loss in local levy money due to the new funding model.

Shari Conditt, president of the Woodland Education Association, said the new model is an opportunity to better fund teacher salaries, but could also have some negative consequences.

“I worry that this new system of establishing a salary schedule is going to create more problems for school districts,” she said, adding that each district handling salary schedules locally could lead to even greater pay disparity among districts.

“It’s scary. It’s really scary.”

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Columbian Education Reporter
Columbian Staff Writer