Teachers in the Evergreen and Washougal school districts headed to the picket lines Tuesday, kicking off what’s expected to be widespread strikes across Clark County.
Red-clad teachers across both districts marched in front of their home campuses, hoisting signs reading “ON STRIKE!” and waving at cars whose drivers honked as they passed.
Districts and unions locally and across the state are negotiating new pay scales due to new school funding legislation. After allocating $7.3 billion to the state school system last year, the Legislature this year added nearly another $1 billion for teacher salaries.
But at the end of the day districts appeared no closer to wage agreements than they were this morning.
Evergreen on strike
Demonstrations at Evergreen campuses were peaceful affairs with few cheers or chants. The Evergreen Education Association represents about 1,800 teachers and instructional staff, and all are expected to be at the picket lines until the strike is over.
Evergreen announced early in the day that school would be closed Wednesday. Middle and high school athletics will continue, because coaches are covered under a separate contract.
When asked by text how negotiations were going, Evergreen Education Association President Bill Beville responded, “Meh.”
Project Transformation, a local summer camp program, will offer breakfast and lunch, plus activities for parents and their children from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday at Leroy Haagen Park, N.E. Ninth Ave., Vancouver.
Clusters of teachers marched back and forth in front of their home campuses. At Evergreen High School and other busier campuses, there were upward of 100 demonstrators, while neighborhood elementary schools saw dozens gathering at otherwise deserted campuses.
Teachers chatted as they marched, quipping about the number of steps their pedometers would register that day.
Norm Sanford, a math teacher and instructional coach, was on the line at Evergreen High School.
“I’m hoping it sends a message to the community that they need to let the district office know that they want this to be over with,” he said. “That we want to go back to work.”
At nearby Burton Elementary School, Steve Miller, a fifth-grade teacher, called on the district to pass through the money allocated by the Legislature toward teacher salaries in the form of double-digit percent pay raises.
“We want this to be resolved as quickly as possible,” Miller said. “It’s disheartening this is happening.”
Miller added that teachers don’t want to be striking, and said it was difficult to attend Monday night’s open house at the school, meeting his future students, and knowing families were disappointed their children would not be in class.
“We’re here for the kids,” Miller said. “We want to teach. We want to be back in the classroom.”
Evergreen Public Schools, meanwhile, maintains it is passing along all available funds, plus local levy dollars, to teachers. In an Aug. 16 news release, the district announced it was offering teachers an average 8.3 percent increase in compensation for the 2018-2019 school year, which would set starting teacher salaries at $50,687, while the most experienced teachers would receive $96,045. The average salary under the district proposal would be about $79,000 plus benefits.
Under advice from the Public Employment Relations Commission, whose mediator is assisting contract negotiations in Evergreen and other districts, neither the union nor the district are providing updated versions of their salary proposals.
Washougal on strike
In Washougal, about 95 percent of teachers were out on picket lines Tuesday morning, according to Mandi Bradford, strike coordinator for the district. Bradford, a kindergarten teacher at Columbia River Gorge Elementary School, was one of 60-plus people picketing out on Evergreen Way between district offices and the campus for Columbia River and Jemtegaard Middle School.
“People have been very supportive,” she said. “They’ve brought us coffee, doughnuts and muffins. Morale is good.”
The 40-plus teachers marching on sidewalks outside of Washougal High School drew a lot of support from drivers passing by, many of whom honked and waved. One man stopped his van at a stop sign and yelled, “What are you striking for?” A few teachers responded, “class size and teacher salary.”
“I’m with you, then,” the man said, giving the teachers two thumbs up and then driving off.
According to information sent out by the district, Washougal was given $14.2 million by the state to pay teachers and has used all of these funds for salaries, and agreed to put an additional $600,000 of local money in the compensation offer.
Teachers expressed frustration with the district’s offers during Tuesday’s strike, saying the district has offered roughly the same deal a few times but shifted money around to make it appear like it’s a higher percentage increase. Others on Tuesday said the district was already behind neighboring districts on pay, and this is a way to try and catch up. Rochelle Quested, a Spanish teacher at the high school for the last 10 years, said she would’ve made more than $9,700 more last year at Camas High School for the same position.
Bruce Stanton taught at Washougal High School for 18 years and retired in 2014. He was out on the picket line Tuesday, and he and his wife, Kathy Stanton, told union members they can use the restroom at his house if needed since they live about a block away from the high school. He felt it was important to show up to support his former colleagues.
“In my heart of hearts, I am a teacher still,” Stanton said. “Education is the most important thing in the world to me. Society doesn’t do a good job of compensating teachers.”
After the union announced there was no agreement in place by Monday’s 5 p.m. deadline, Superintendent Mary Templeton said both sides would continue working hard to get kids back to school. She also said there are some days built into the school calendar where the district could possibly make up any days lost to the strike. The district is required by state law to have 180 days of school, according to a statement sent out by the district.
The district doesn’t anticipate having to move the date of Washougal High School graduation if the strike lasts fewer than four days, according to that same statement.
There are still a lot of unknowns on how the strike will impact the district. Kelly Gregersen, Washougal High School’s theater teacher, said he was at a back to school event a few days ago and students kept asking him about auditions for the fall musical if the teachers went on strike. Gregersen said he didn’t know what to tell them other than the plan is to do “Mamma Mia!”
“We typically hold auditions the first or second week of the school year,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen right now. Everything is just up in the air.”