This isn’t just déjà vu.

For the second summer in a row, Seattle Public Schools and the union representing 6,000 of its employees are under the wire to finalize a new labor contract just weeks before the start of school on Sept. 4. Educators picketed in solidarity at overpasses at Seattle’s north and sound ends early Wednesday.

As they work toward an Aug. 21 deadline for a tentative agreement, employee salaries are once again a sticking point in negotiations, according to the Seattle Education Association (SEA), whose leaders declined to say how much more compensation they are seeking.

The district, which recently approved its largest operating budget ever, says its financial outlook is dim, and that it can only afford raises tied to inflation, about 2%. The union, which secured 10.5% raises last year, isn’t buying that narrative.

It’s too early to tell whether negotiations may lead to a strike, union officials say.

Last summer, an infusion of money from the state for teacher salaries opened up contracts for virtually every school district, leading to chaos as parents wondered when school would resume. But even after some strikes, many Washington school districts agreed to three-year contracts. Not in Seattle, which narrowly avoided a strike when the district and the union agreed to a one-year contract that would stall long-term discussions until after the district could appeal limits on local levy collection, a restriction implemented by a court-ordered state education funding overhaul.

The union’s nonsalary priorities are largely the same as last year: funding for more counselors and nurses, expansion of school-based teams that focus on racial equity issues and more flexibility for personal leave.

Advertising

Over the past school year, even through warnings of cuts that would slice school budgets by $40 million, management and labor appeared to be on the same page about the district’s finances. They lobbied together in Olympia, blaming state lawmakers for looming cuts.

Now, after jointly securing a rollback of those collection limits, their perspectives have diverged.

“Every year, it’s doom and gloom, and every year, (the district) makes more money,” said Karen Kazanjian, a fiscal specialist at Ballard High School and a member of a bargaining subcommittee that analyzes the district’s spending patterns.

On Monday, the union shared a report with The Seattle Times that shows the district spent $167.8 million less on teaching costs than what it budgeted between the 2014-2015 and 2017-2018 school years, a figure that the state education department confirmed. It also claims that the district overestimates its expenditures in its yearly budgets.

The report left librarians like Kate Eads — whose positions were among the first identified for cut’s last year — wondering why the district could not scrape together the money to avoid the agony that comes with downsizing notifications.

“The district is not a bank for us to store our money,” said Eads, a member of the union’s bargaining team.

Advertising

In its latest budget, the district estimates it will draw down more than half of its $116 million in cash reserves. Despite the $90 million rise in spending, some of the cuts they warned about are still happening. The district sent layoff notices in the spring to 10 teachers and counselors, and six assistant principals. To make up for a projected enrollment decline, the district also cut individual school budgets, transferring teachers to growing schools in some cases instead of hiring new staff. It also cut 2.5 positions from its central office.

Most of that projected spending increase will cover the state-mandated expansion of health benefits, as well as raises approved in last year’s contract, the district’s chief financial officer said last month.

In a statement, the district said it is “actively comparing our salaries to neighboring districts and have every intention of remaining competitive, but we have to balance that against what we can afford.”

“We hope SEA will continue to have authentic and transparent conversations about compensation and the reality of the district’s budget,” the statement said.

It did not respond to specific questions about the union’s report by press time.

As the sun rose on Wednesday, union members dressed in red — a nod to the national teacher labor movement Red for Ed — and stood at the South Albro Place freeway overpass, waving signs at commuters. The raises last year helped, they said, but they haven’t stopped people from leaving the district for higher salaries or more affordable places. Under the current contract, certificated teachers max out at around $111,000 — a few thousand less than Shoreline, Everett, Edmonds and Lake Washington school districts.

The starting salary for a teacher with a master’s degree in Seattle is around $70,000; for a bachelor’s degree, it’s about $56,000. The range is lower for non-certificated employees.

They’d also like more protections and pay for positions catered to high-needs students.

Gerald Donaldson, a family support worker at Leschi Elementary School, said he’s watched the number of family support worker positions dwindle over the past 30 years. He says he averages about 12 hours a day of work helping families get rent assistance, food and a reliable place to stay.

“Parents know what we do, and how important we are,” Donaldson said over the approving honk of a passing car. “We shouldn’t have to go back to Olympia.”