As unions and school administrators throughout Clark County — and the rest of the state — negotiate teacher salaries, a word of advice is warranted for school districts: Don’t bargain away money you don’t have.
While the Legislature this year provided a big boost in state funding for public schools, including an extra $1 billion for teacher salaries, the kind of raises being sought are not sustainable. The Washington Education Association, the statewide teachers union, has urged members to push for 15 percent raises, a number that represents short-term desires at the expense of a long-term vision.
The result has been threats of strikes in the wake of contentious negotiations. Chris Reykdal, state superintendent for public schools, said, “We literally have every district at the table.” In Clark County, only teachers in the Woodland district have approved a contract for the coming year. As a measure of the chasm between teachers and administrators, 98 percent of union members in Ridgefield last week voted to approve a strike if an agreement is not reached.
Indeed, school districts will be flush with cash this year. In response to the 2012 state Supreme Court ruling in McCleary v. Washington, lawmakers approved an additional $7.3 billion in state funding for schools over the next four years. The plan, however, is offset by a reduction in local school levies beginning in January 2019. The simplistic explanation for a complicated matter: In the long run, the cost of basic education is being transferred from local school levies to a statewide property tax.
Administrators say that if double-digit raises are handed out this year, funding will not be sustainable beyond 2019. “We have this financial analysis, and we’re saying, ‘not a good future,’ ” John Steach, superintendent of Evergreen Public Schools, said. Evergreen has offered a pay range of $50,687 to $96,044, an average raise of 7.7 percent; the union has proposed a range of $56,631 to $96,893. Mark Ross, superintendent of Battle Ground schools, where teachers have proposed a raise of 30 percent, said: “(We would be) taking money out of curriculum, laying off staff, taking money out of maintenance. We’re still going to be looking at a loss.”
Of course, asking for a lot and settling for less is all part of the negotiating process. But the Washington Education Association has helped to fuel discord and to jeopardize the start of the school year by creating unrealistic expectations for teachers. The $1 billion in funding for salaries this year is not designed to go straight into the pockets of veteran teachers. Part of the remake of public schools includes smaller class sizes for kindergarten through third grade, which will require the hiring of additional teachers. In addition, each district will be affected differently by the new funding model, and many of those differences are still being sorted out.
The Legislature also deserves criticism for the current climate. Following the McCleary ruling, lawmakers dithered for years before devising a solution shortly before the deadline set by the court. Rather than phasing in a solution and allowing school districts to adjust over time, they created a difficult scenario for teachers and school officials.
The result has been a combative summer filled with negotiations and questions about whether the school year will begin on time. As both sides state their case, it is imperative to settle upon budgets that are sustainable and that prepare districts for the future. Anything less would be irresponsible and would poorly serve the taxpayers who foot the bill.