Did you hear the one about the state Senate Democrat who was married to a teacher but ended up battling the teachers union because he wanted to make sure that a bill to send hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to school districts to fund needed services like librarians and counselors actually did that?
Sadly, it is not a joke. I am that senator. And this is the case with Senate Bill 5313, which would partially lift caps on voter-approved school levies put in place as part of a legislative package to address the Washington Supreme Court’s ruling in the McCleary case. The court had ruled in 2012 that the state failed to adequately fund K-12 education.
This year, the teachers union and many school officials are demanding the change, arguing that schools need more local money for programs. But when I proposed to keep that local levy money from being diverted into staff salaries — something the districts supported — the teachers union accused me of cutting teachers’ pay.
The problem is something in teachers’ contracts called TRI pay (“time, responsibility and incentive”). Teachers generally earn a base pay, supplemented by compensation for extra time worked, plus TRI pay. The base pay comes from the state; the others from local levy dollars.
When I joined the Senate in 2012, I was a strong advocate for TRI pay. The state did such a miserable job funding teacher salaries that using local levy dollars was the only way my communities of Issaquah, Maple Valley and Snoqualmie could pay teachers what they deserved. But every local dollar for salaries was one less for programs — and that overreliance on local pay for salaries was what led to the McCleary lawsuit.
The only way out was for the state to increase the base rate paid to all teachers, to make sure they got a fair wage, and to remove local levies from the salary equation. The Legislature did that. My impression, shared by many fellow elected officials in Olympia, was that this increase in base pay would free up locally raised tax dollars to fund the programs our teachers, parents and students love and deserve, such as extra paraeducators and athletic programs.
So many fellow lawmakers and I were shocked when school districts across the state bargained contracts that diverted money from programs to fund additional TRI pay raises above the base pay increase. For example, following contract negotiations last summer, a sample contract for a Seattle teacher with 15 years of experience provided for $83,122 in base pay, plus $4,156 for nine extra days of work and another $12,555 in TRI pay, for total compensation of $99,833.
The extra $4,156 for time worked beyond the standard 180 days is unquestionably deserved. And I think the teachers in this example should be able to keep the other $12,555 increase, which was the result of collective bargaining. But the state should pay that $12,555, and local levy dollars should go to services to support teachers and students, like librarians, mental-health counselors and after-school programs for kids who need extra support.
Our state constitution requires an increase in teacher base pay every year, based on inflation. We can meet that goal without any teacher seeing a pay cut. Under my amendment that was adopted, as the state base pay increases over the next two years, the TRI pay from local levies would gradually decrease by an equal amount. The savings would go back into local programs and services, and the hypothetical Seattle teacher would still make $99,833. The bill has yet to have a vote on the Senate floor but is opposed by the teachers union.
I was surprised at the level of pushback I received from both the teachers union and my own party for suggesting that local levy dollars be devoted to local programs, rather than additional TRI pay raises. And I know that writing this Op-Ed about it will make my life harder, not easier.
But if Democrats are going to govern successfully, we have to stand up when interest groups — even those that support us — are not being reasonable. If teachers believe the state is not adequately paying them, they need to ask the Legislature for a raise. Anything else runs the risk of creating McCleary 2.0.