It’s been a hectic summer of bargaining for school districts and teacher unions, making it a busy summer for agencies that provide assistance in negotiations and mediation.
As districts and unions have bargained without reaching an agreement, many school districts have started to request mediation from the state Public Employment Relations Commission. Mediation has been requested in every district in Clark County where unions voted to approve potential strikes: Evergreen, Vancouver, Battle Ground, Ridgefield, Washougal and Hockinson.
Mike Sellars, executive director of the commission, recently looked back at mediation requests from schools throughout the last eight years. Since 2010, the most requests the commission received for mediation was eight, which came in 2015. In a full year, the most requests the commission has received was 17, also in 2015, Sellars said.
As of Friday afternoon, the commission has received 21 requests for mediation between school districts and certified school staffers this summer alone. Eighteen of those requests are still open.
“This is probably the most active we’ve been with teachers, but the circumstances are unique with districts that have contracts but are bargaining due to changes in the law,” Sellars said.
School districts throughout the state are bargaining this summer because of the McCleary decision, a state Supreme Court case that found Washington was failing to fully fund basic education. Last year, the Legislature approved $7.3 billion in allocations to schools over four years, and the Legislature added another nearly $1 billion for teacher salaries this year.
The commission has 16 field specialists who travel around to mediate during bargaining, Sellars said. There are also three specialists and two supervisors, all of whom have experience in the field and could be called to assist in mediation if needed.
Sellars said he’s expecting mediation requests from other districts around the state, including Longview. In addition to calling in the specialists and supervisors, Sellars said some mediators in the field are working with multiple school districts, and others might have to.
The Washington Education Association, the statewide teachers’ union, provides negotiation assistance to unions in bargaining, and Rich Wood, spokesman for the association, said most negotiators are working on more than one contract this summer.
Between certified and classified unions, Wood said the association had 255 contracts opened this summer. There are still a little more than 200 of those contract disputes that have not been settled.
“We knew what was coming,” Wood said, adding that the association was a big supporter of the McCleary decision.
Unions and school districts not agreeing on a new deal at this point of the summer isn’t unusual, Wood said. What’s different this year, besides how many districts and unions are still without agreements, is that so many are focused on just salary, he said.
“That’s what the court ordered and Legislature funded,” Wood said. “That’s what is uniting everyone.”
Wood said that while the focus is the same around the state, it’s a lot more work for the association than a typical summer. Still, he said the association has been able to provide assistance to all unions in negotiations.
Sellars said it’s been a balancing act for the commission, although he knows summer is usually a teacher-heavy season anyway.
“We try to plan in advance,” he said. “If (the mediators) are scheduling meetings with other parties, they’re letting parties know, that’s what we call ‘peak teacher season.’ They may have to schedule their matter later.”
Adding complications to the end of summer is that school bargaining has a built-in deadline — the first day of school — which other disputes don’t always have, Sellars said.
“The pace of the mediation for the teachers is a bit different because it’s geared to the start of the school year, we have historically restricted leave for our field staff for the last two weeks of August and first two weeks of September,” Sellars said.