The new contract between Seattle Public Schools and its educators will usher in a more inclusive model of education, as students receiving special education services are eventually placed in general education classrooms for most of the day, Seattle Education Association officials say.

The agreement came after a teacher’s strike that delayed the start of school for five days.

“We’re talking about inclusive education, and that’s big,” said Cherylynne Crowther, president of the Seattle Special Education PTSA. “That’s a first step, and there’s a lot that goes into understanding and awareness of what inclusive education can look like.”

The Seattle Education Association, or SEA, and the district disagreed on how to integrate special education students into general education classes, a major part of bargaining delays. The union successfully pushed for more classroom support staff to make that possible. Washington has one of the lowest rates of inclusion in the nation, and research shows more inclusionary practices improve academic outcomes for all students. 

“What you see in our contract is the rolling-out of different inclusion policies around special education,” said Uti Hawkins, SEA vice president and lead bargainer. “The rolling-out of some of these things will be over time.”

SEA voted Monday night to approve the contract and announced the result early Tuesday. There are three contracts in all, and each group voted on its own agreement. For the contact covering certificated staff or classroom teachers, 71% voted in favor. The contract covering paraprofessionals passed with 66% in favor. And educational office professionals voted 82% in favor of their contract.

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In all, 4,143 of SEA’s 6,000 members voted on their respective contracts. Membership turnout during this round of bargaining resulted in the highest numbers the union has seen, Hawkins said.

“It was beautiful to see what we can all do together in solidarity,” Hawkins told reporters during a news conference Tuesday morning. “It was a very, very clear message to Seattle Public School leadership that they need to be part of the conversation in the community and they need to come to listen.”

SEA members went on strike on what would have been the first day of school, Sept. 7, and voted to suspend the strike after a tentative agreement was reached. Students started school Sept. 14.

“We want to let you know that it was a struggle,” Hawkins said. “There was a definite fight to retain our worker’s rights as well as ensure that the supports for our students that we know are necessary — coming off of some of the most difficult years of a lifetime — need to be in place.”

The Seattle School Board still must vote on the contract. Superintendent Brent Jones — who has a background in human resources — said it’s rare for a board to vote down a contract proposal.

It’s unclear when the board will vote: The next scheduled board meeting is Sept. 28, and they could hold a special meeting before then. 

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What stood out to Vivian van Gelder, director of advocacy and policy for the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition, was the amount of money the contract was going to add to budget shortfalls. 

The contract will cost the district about $228 million over three years and add nearly $92 million to already projected budget shortfalls. Last week, during a regular board meeting, board members asked staffers how SPS could balance the budget if it approved the contract. Options include dipping into the district’s rainy day funds and using federal pandemic relief dollars.

“This is not unusual, especially for government organizations,” van Gelder said. “But usually there is always something on the horizon that will likely fix [budget shortfalls].”

This time there are no projected state funds to bail out the district, van Gelder said, a reason why pulling from emergency funds is an option.

Under the proposed contract, SPS would pay raises of 7% for both certificated and classified staff. Originally, the district proposed a 6.5% increase, which included a state-funded 5.5% inflationary adjustment.

In the second year of the contract, members would receive a 4% salary increase for inflation and 3% the following year. If the state funds a higher inflationary adjustment, union members will receive whichever is greater, the tentative agreement says.

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Jennifer Matter, SEA president, said Seattle wages are just now catching up to salaries in nearby districts. “That was our main goal with this bargain — to make sure that we are competitive but also trying to have a living wage,” she said.

SEA was also fighting for more manageable caseloads and teacher-to-student ratios in the special education and multilingual programs. The union was able to maintain ratios while increasing the number of staff in classrooms to provide more support.

Previously, when educators faced work overloads and needed extra help, they often had to wait three months for the district to address staffing adjustments, Matter said. Under the new contract, it will be every two weeks. As a result, educators should be able to address the needs of students with individualized education programs, or IEPs, faster.

Although Matter said that approving the new contract was a step toward progress, there are larger conversations to be had about state funding. For example, she said, the state caps funding for students with IEPs. That needs to be addressed, she said.

Under the new contract, counselor-to-student ratios will decrease at middle and high schools with the greatest needs, said Sarah Prichett, interim superintendent of human resources, during last week’s board meeting. Currently, there is one counselor per every 375 students. At schools with high needs, that will drop to 350 students per counselor. 

Caseloads for speech and language therapists were previously capped at 47 students. Under the new agreement, ratios will be decreased by one student, Prichett said. In the next two school years, that number will drop to 44 students. 

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“This was an issue we held at the bargaining table until the twelfth hour,” Hawkins said. “[Speech and language therapists] are a huge part of student evaluations processes as well and they need a ton more support.”

But the caseload caps are still high, Hawkins said, and SEA will try for more manageable ratios in the future. Ideally, each speech and language therapist would only have between 35 and 40 students.

Five nurses will be added in the 2023-24 school year, Prichett said, and the equivalent of a part-time social worker will be funded at K-8 and middle schools. 

“It’s really a big win to make sure that we are safe, protected and healthy in everything we do,” said Joaquín Rodríguez, SEA’s racial equity coordinator. 

Much of the extra support staff will hinge on how fast the district can hire, union leadership has said.

Another major effort during bargaining was increasing library funds. Hawkins said SEA, which has been requesting more money for libraries for 10 years, was finally able to secure more library money. A one-time $50,000 fund will go toward libraries at schools with the greatest needs, and the library funding was increased by $9 per student, which will be used to purchase library materials.