CAMAS — Wednesday marked the sixth day of school closures in Camas as educators strike amid stalled contract negotiations with district officials.
To the west, Evergreen Public Schools saw its fifth day of school closures while the district — the biggest in Southwest Washington — also struggles to reach a deal with its teachers union.
Both districts remain closed today as bargaining has still failed to yield new contracts. Battle Ground Public Schools remains open, despite still not having a deal on a new contract with its own teachers union.
Camas’ strike now matches the length of last year’s strike led by the Ridgefield Education Association, which lasted from Sept. 9 to Sept. 16.
As teachers in Camas continue to walk the picket lines, the district announced Wednesday evening that it had reached a tentative agreement on a three-year contract with the Public Schools Employees union representing the district’s 650 custodians, bus drivers, paraeducators, food services workers, technology, mechanics, and maintenance employees.
Details of the agreement were not released, but the district announcement said it included salary enhancements, and “numerous issues to ensure our valued support staff feel seen and heard,” lead district negotiator Marilyn Boerke said in the district statement.
The Camas teachers union led a rally early Wednesday afternoon outside the Zellerbach Administration Center, the Camas district’s headquarters building nestled in a typically quiet neighborhood in town. Parents and children joined the picket line, expressing support for the teachers.
“I can say with confidence my son has never had a teacher that wouldn’t do everything for him. Even if it’s when staff coming to me with concerns or preparing a difficult conversation,” said Heather Perry, a parent of two students in the district. “I feel so much empathy for the teachers walking every day, the sentiment among parents is that we are with you. I haven’t heard from a parent that would say otherwise.”
Sarah Lewis, another parent in the district picketing Wednesday, said she and her daughter Violet, 8, were happy to support their teachers but conceded it’s been difficult explaining the reason for schools staying closed.
“(Violet) is excited to be here, but she understands how the year will be impacted,” Lewis said. “But it’s still hard, kids have a lot of anxiety at the start of the year. It’s hard to explain what’s going on without tainting their perspective on their schools, but this stuff is true.”
Throughout the six-day picket and even in the months before the strike began, staff members have expressed confusion and frustration about how the district is using excess funds in its budget.
In Washington, public school districts maintain what’s called a “minimum fund balance.” While there’s no law that requires such a balance, districts are advised to reserve about 5 percent to 10 percent of their budgeted expenditures for emergencies each year or to help offset revenue declines.
This year, the district said it’s in danger of encroaching upon its minimum fund balance if it inches past what’s already been outlined in it’s “last, best, final offer to the union” shared Aug. 29.
Based on Camas’ four-year budget forecast approved last week, its budgeted ending fund balance for the 2023-2024 fiscal year would be amount to about 10.6 percent of its total budgeted expenditures. The additional costs included in the district’s latest proposal with the union would bring the ending fund balance down to 9.19 percent of its total budgeted expenditures for 2023-2024.
The district estimates in the second year of the contract based on the current proposal, the district would be left with a fund balance of 5.3 percent of its expenditures.
In a document shared on the district website, the district said such a fund balance would only support 20 days of operation. Union members say they are familiar with the district’s warnings about the fund balance.
“They have this narrative every year that the sky is falling, and then the sky continues not to fall,” said Kate Gooding, an English teacher at Camas High School.
According to annual financial statements provided to the state, Camas’ general fund revenue has exceeded what was estimated prior to the school year every year since at least the 2018-2019 fiscal year. In turn, its ending fund balance has also regularly exceeded the initial predictions.
In the 2021-2022 school year — the most recently-available end-of-year budget data — the district’s ending total fund balance amounted to 17.07 percent of its total expenditures after budgeting for a balance of 9.4 percent. The ratio is among the highest across similar-sized school districts in Washington, per the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
What to expect
Unions in Evergreen and Camas will bargain again today.
The Battle Ground Education Association most recently held a bargaining session with the district on Tuesday but won’t meet again until Saturday, Sept. 16. While teachers have been without a working contract since Sept. 1, schools have remained open in the district to start the year.
As schools remain closed in Evergreen and Camas, each district will continue to hold after-school athletics and provide free meals to parents on behalf of their children. Full details on Evergreen meal services are available on the district’s website: https://sites.google.com/evergreenps.org/strike-meals-2023/home. In Camas, lunch will be served at Liberty Middle School and Lacamas Lake Elementary School from 11 a.m. to noon.
For more information on the day-to-day bargaining process in Evergreen, visit the district’s website: https://sites.google.com/evergreenps.org/human-resources/eea-bargaining-update.
For information on bargaining in Camas, visit the district’s website: https://www.camas.wednet.edu/about-csd/budget-development/labor-relations/.