Over the weekend, a teachers strike was avoided in Seattle. But the threat of work stoppages continues elsewhere in Washington — and that’s no surprise to lawmakers.
They knew it was coming.
When lawmakers overhauled the state’s education budget, they were well aware they were setting in motion a chain of events that would lead to the most chaotic summer of teacher-contract negotiations in recent memory.
Now, educators and school districts throughout Washington are left with a problem that was totally expected. Already, families in six Clark County districts have had to find backup plans as their children’s teachers walked out. In Seattle, negotiations kept parents guessing whether schools would start on time — until late Friday, when a tentative contract was reached.
“It was anticipated to be messy,” said Christine Rolfes, the chief Democratic Senate budget writer and one of a handful of legislators who drafted the K-12 spending plan.
Over the past two years, the Washington Legislature both imploded the way it pays for public schools and added billions of dollars to the state’s tab for educator salaries. The infusion of cash satisfied the state Supreme Court, which in 2012 ruled in the McCleary case that the state was violating its own constitution by failing to pay for the full cost of providing a basic education to 1.1 million students.
But lawmakers also went a step further than that order, and set new rules on how districts could actually spend their new money while capping what they could raise locally. To many districts, those rules were ambiguous.
Combined, the sheer scope of the changes and size of the windfall essentially opened every school district’s contract with their teachers for renegotiation. That transition to new contracts was always going to be a little rough, and experts early on predicted it could be worse.
“Would it be ironic if in the midst of rolling out billions more in state K-12 funding, we see strikes or near-strikes in a record number of school districts? Such a development would be very confusing to the public,” Bill Keim, the former executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators, wrote in a blog post more than four months ago.
That lawmakers aren’t shocked by the start-of-the-school-year chaos is little comfort to the parents of thousands of children in Clark County, where classes in six districts were canceled as teachers picketed to demand better pay.
In King and Snohomish counties, some districts — notably, those that will collect a lot more money than others under the new state budget — struck deals with teachers early in the summer, including Bellevue, Edmonds and Lake Washington.
But negotiations didn’t go as smoothly in Seattle, where teachers voted Tuesday to strike; the shutdown was avoided when a deal was struck Friday. A tentative one-year contract calls for a 10.5 percent raise, according to an email sent to members of the Seattle Education Association. Union members will vote on the contract next Saturday and the Seattle School Board will review and vote Sept. 18.
The strike-authorization vote in Seattle followed similar action in Highline and Kent, where negotiators last week reached tentative agreement to avert any picket lines. Teachers also authorized strikes in the Bethel, Puyallup and Tukwila districts. (Late Friday, Bethel announced a deal.)
As of Saturday, roughly 20 strikes are pending or ongoing across Washington state. So far, the actions have affected 78,000 students in districts where teachers have walked out, and could also disrupt at least 88,000 students enrolled in districts where strikes have been authorized.
“The process looks pretty normal to me. There’s just so many (negotiations) happening at once,” said state schools chief Chris Reykdal.
“There’s a natural order to this,” he added. “Both parties start fairly far apart and of course work to get closer. They both have various strategies to get there.”
That order doesn’t feel natural to Brandy Freeman, who had planned to send her son last week to his first day of kindergarten at Lake Shore Elementary in Vancouver. But after three days of the strike and canceled classes, Freeman worried less about the dispute over teacher pay and more about how she would feed her son.
The family’s food stamps hadn’t yet arrived, so Freeman hoped to rely on subsidized meals and a pop-up food pantry at her son’s school.
“I do want to know where the buck stops,” she said of the strike, “because in politics, usually there’s people higher up who make the decisions, and then the people on the bottom … pay the biggest price.”
“There’s so many moving parts”
After months of negotiating during last year’s legislative session, lawmakers reached a budget deal that they hoped would finally settle the decadelong McCleary lawsuit.
The agreement — struck behind closed doors — promised to provide schools with about $7.3 billion and over two years cover the full cost of educator salaries. In other states, districts count to some degree on income taxes to supplement state and federal dollars; here in Washington, other measures, such as the McCleary fix, are needed to fill the gap.
The McCleary deal eliminated a statewide salary schedule that many districts relied on to pay their teachers. Schools also would no longer collect extra money from the state if they hired teachers with more experience or higher degrees.
“Effectively, every district had to reconsider its salary schedule,” Reykdal said.
Then, the Supreme Court added another complication: In November, the justices ordered the state to hasten its spending plan and provide an extra $1 billion for school salaries by Sept. 1.
The Legislature found a way to do so by March, prompting McCleary’s resolution in June.
While that left school districts with little time to bargain all the new money for raises, some have criticized how long it took them to start contract talks.
“Everyone should have figured out a contract by now,” said Beth Sigall, a Lake Washington School District parent and founder of the Eastside Education Network. “I truly do not think there’s any one single reason why we are on the precipice of so many strikes.”
Earlier this summer, much of the dispute over teacher contracts stemmed from a disagreement between districts and their unions over a 3.1 percent cap on raises that lawmakers approved last year. But Democrats, who took control of the Legislature this year, added vague exceptions to that cap — leaving little guidance on whether districts could provide double-digit pay hikes for teachers.
Districts then turned to Reykdal’s office for help — or cover — in their fight to keep raises at the 3.1 percent cap.
Since at least last summer, Reykdal and his staff have tried to help districts make sense of their financial footing. But it wasn’t until late this summer — two weeks before school was to start in most districts — that he sent a letter to superintendents saying raises are limited only “by what you can afford and what you can sustain.”
Sen. John Braun of Centralia, the chief Republican budget writer and one of the lawmakers who drafted the McCleary plan, said state leaders like Reykdal, Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson could have worked to make sure strikes don’t happen or are stopped.
“A statewide voice that calms people and encourages goodwill and working together to do something … is very helpful,” said Braun, who last week penned a letter to the three officials, calling on them to ensure schools start on time. “I don’t see that. I don’t see them even talking about it.”
For his part, Reykdal countered that most of his communication with and guidance to districts isn’t distributed publicly.
He also said the August letter to superintendents came so late in the bargaining season because he had sought clarification from lawmakers themselves, the attorney general and the state Public Employees Relations Commission.
“We didn’t get a very specific answer,” Reykdal said. “They all basically said, ‘We yield to you. This is your space.’
“So I moved forward on it,” he added. But, “It’s challenging, especially when there’s so many moving parts.”
“A recipe for disaster”
At the local level, districts are contending with another moving part: an impending cut to their local property-tax collections.
Lawmakers approved those cuts to offset a hike in the statewide property-tax rate, which will pay for the increased spending on schools. With nearly a third of all districts set to lose more than half of their local levy funding, some have argued the boost in state funding still won’t make up the difference and prevents them from affording hefty raises.
Seattle Public Schools, for example, expects to face a nearly $44 million budget shortfall in 2019-20 and more than $68 million two years later.
Teachers unions aren’t buying it.
“It’s disappointing that there are school districts where the superintendents and school boards are not willing so far to invest in competitive pay for their teachers, but that’s not necessarily a new thing,” said Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association.
Reykdal, however, believes the new levy lids will harm district budgets; next year he plans to ask lawmakers to provide some flexibility.
There’s no guarantee his proposal will gain much traction in Olympia. Lawmakers appear wary of offering a saving grace to districts if they struggle to pay for today’s raises in the future.
Sen. Guy Palumbo, D-Maltby, told the Washington Policy Center he’s concerned about “superintendents who are acknowledging that they are making unsustainable budget decisions and that the Legislature is going to have to bail them out in the next couple years.”
In Edmonds, where teachers recently secured a 20 percent pay hike, the district already projected it will be about $39 million in the red by 2022. And on Wednesday, the Spokane School Board approved a 2018-19 budget that will tap into its cash reserves to cover a $12.6 million shortfall.
Teachers there are set to receive a 13 percent raise.
“I think that is a recipe for disaster,” Palumbo said. “There is no appetite in Olympia to bail out school boards and superintendents who make bad budget decisions.”