For nearly 27 years, Jacqueline Hardy has been a paraeducator in Seattle Public Schools. During that time she hasn’t been able to afford to live in Seattle — where she was born and raised — and has worked two jobs to pay her bills.

Here’s what you need to know about the Seattle teachers strike

Wednesday was to be the first day of the 2022 school year, but instead, Hardy was one of the thousands of Seattle Education Association members on strike.

Neither side has explained why they haven’t reached an agreement. But they’re still at the bargaining table, and a mediator is assisting.

On Wednesday, striking educators spelled out their frustrations on the picket line, describing the challenges of teaching at a time when many children have fallen behind academically and are struggling with emotional and behavioral issues.

For paraeducators – often known as instruction assistants – the problem is pay. “We need a huge pay raise — like we’re barely getting by,” said Rhonda Gonzales, an instructional assistant at Lafayette Elementary School.

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In Seattle, a paraeducator’s base pay starts at about $19 an hour, and tops out at $40 an hour. That starting pay is lower than nearby districts. At Northshore School District, paraeducator base pay starts at about $27 an hour. Bellevue pays $22 to start, Lake Washington pays $20 and Highline pays $22.

In general education classes, instructional assistants not only help special education students, they help everyone else in the room, said Julie Clark, an instructional assistant for 15 years.

When Jane Addams Middle School first opened in 2014, Clark was one of its first instructional assistants. None of the others are still there – they’ve either moved on to a different role, began working at a different school district in the same role or left the field entirely, Clark said. 

Union officials haven’t said how big of a pay increase they’re seeking for paraeducators and teachers, but since 2018 most teachers have seen a substantial salary bump. Under the current contract, the salary range for Seattle is on par with surrounding school districts, but slightly less than Highline, Northshore, and Lake Washington. 

Beginner teachers make about $63,000, and salaries top out at $123,500 for a teacher with a Ph.D. Northshore, by contrast, starts at $68,000 and tops out at nearly $131,000.

One sticking point, at least for some: The union is asking for smaller teacher-to-student ratios in the special education and multilingual programs, but the district wants to get rid of student-to-teacher ratios altogether and implement a “workload calculator,” said Steven Miller, an International Baccalaureate coordinator at Rainier Beach High School. 

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Miller said it’s not clear what a workload calculator would mean; the language in district proposals is vague. In effect, the district is asking the teachers to trust them, and “That faith just isn’t here,” he said.

School district officials said Wednesday that negotiations are continuing and they are certain the Seattle Education Association, also known as SEA, and the district can come to an agreement. Families will be updated each day at 3 p.m., the district said.

Kevin Hiller, a special education teacher at Rainier Beach for about seven years, called the proposal to remove teacher-to-student ratios in special education “terrifying.” He taught in Chicago, and when administrators upped the ratios, he said, the classrooms became chaotic, it was difficult to meet individualized education program goals, and teachers and families were frustrated.

SEA and the district also want students receiving special education services to be more fully integrated into general education classrooms. But in order to do that, Hiller said, teachers need more support staff. 

“Full inclusion is probably the way to go, but … you have to allocate appropriate resources. It has to be rolled out over time,” Hiller said. “They need to talk to teachers about best practices instead of just saying things and then forcing things to happen that we know will be a train wreck.”

Extra supports are also needed for students who are multilingual or learning English, teachers said. Rachel Pendergast, a second and third grade teacher at Dearborn Park International Elementary School, said three families arrived at school Wednesday not knowing it was canceled because of the strike. All of the students were English learners.

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Caseloads were high the past school year, said Maridith Dollente, an English-language learner instructional aid at Cleveland High School, and many students were still struggling with learning face-to-face. 

Dollente said she had about 75% of the support she needed the past school year. “Sometimes there would be instances that were not manageable because some of them (students) would shout out, get out of their seat, move around too much and while the teacher is teaching it’s very, very disruptive.” 

The Seattle Student Union, a group of student activists, released a statement in support of the striking educators, calling the union demands “the foundation of what is needed to ensure a strong district for years to come, and they ensure that every student and staff member has the support they need to succeed.”

Eleven students joined Lincoln High School educators on the picket line Wednesday morning and afternoon. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable what they are asking for,” said Chetan Soni, a junior at Lincoln this year and co-founder of the Seattle Student Union. “It’s not just about pay increases, it’s about student success and student education.”

Soni said educators are fighting for student safety, which parallels what the Seattle Student Union was advocating for all last year. “We’re trying to repay the favors because solidarity is a verb and how teachers were there for us we can be there for teachers.”

Support for teachers was running strong among parents, despite the impact on their families.

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Hedwight Amoda said her 4th and 6th grade sons were disappointed to see school canceled. Her youngest had gone to an open house at Wing Luke Elementary on Tuesday, seen its beautifully renovated campus and met his teacher.  Her older one was a bit nervous to start middle school, but seemed ready to face the challenge after she gave him a pep talk.

“The first day back to school is so important,” said Amoda, a social worker, after dropping her kids off at the Boys & Girls Club of America in the Rainier Valley, which because of the strike was running an all-day program. “They are really taking that away from kids.”

Seattle teachers strike, delaying first day of school

“I’m not blaming the teachers or the union,” she quickly added. She said she didn’t know exactly what they were asking for, but was sure it was important if they were willing to see school canceled. 

Karen Rains, in contrast, said she had gone onto the union website and read every word of what teachers are asking for. “I think they deserve everything and more,” said the West Seattle mom, who has an 8th grader and two high schoolers. 

Particularly important to her, she said, are teacher and staff concerns about support for special education students. One of her children is such a student and his individualized educational plan calls for him to have an aide in academic classes.

Yet last week, she said a school counselor called to tell her there weren’t enough aides for him to have one in every class and asked her to choose the most important.  She picked English Language Arts.

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Fellow West Seattle mom Jen Boyer, a writer who got up at 4 a.m. Wednesday so she could finish work early and do something with her 8th and 9th graders, noted the strike was coming on top of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Her kids felt isolated. Teachers burnt out. Seattle Public Schools, she said, did a poor job of supporting both, feeding Boyer’s distrust of the district and current support for the union.

A few Beacon Hill International Elementary parents showed their support in visible ways. Beth Somerfield opened her nearby house to marchers who needed to use the bathroom. Signs with arrows led the way, and her daughter and several peers kept track of how many people had come:  53 by midmorning.

Somerfield, who works from home for a consulting firm, said she was expecting to be able to focus more on work this week with school starting, but wasn’t resentful about the turn of events. 

“I come from a family of teachers,” Somerfield said. “I know how hard they work.”