Will contract talks delay start of school?
DEBBIE CAFAZZO; Staff writer
Contract talks between the Tacoma School District and its teachers union were scheduled to continue this weekend in an effort to reach an agreement before the start of school Sept. 1.
Two mediators from the state Public Employment Relations Commission are sitting in, following an Aug. 8 request from the School District. The Tacoma Education Association and the School District reportedly are exchanging bargaining proposals.
Both the weekend talks and the planned exchange represent progress in what has been a tense summer.
Some teachers have hinted about the possibility of a strike in an online forum. The TEA asked its members in the spring whether they would support a strike if a contract isn’t ready for their review by Aug. 31, when the current three-year agreement expires.
TEA President Andy Coons declined earlier this summer to say what the results of that spring survey were.
TEA – which represents about 2,100 teachers, librarians, therapists, school nurses, counselors, office professionals and technology experts – plans a membership meeting the week of Aug. 29.
The union has complained for months about the district’s decision to hire an outside negotiator who was not able to reach a settlement, and about what it says is foot-dragging on the part of the district during negotiations.
So far, the district estimates it has spent about $37,500 on a contract with Washington Employers, which is helping the district negotiate. Once bargaining reaches a threshold of 27 sessions, at $1,500 per session, the district will pay $195 per hour for the consultant’s assistance. The district said it turned to the contractor because several years ago it eliminated the position of in-house labor negotiator to save money. Public Employment Relations Commission mediators serve at no cost to either side.
While union complaints have focused on the contractor and the schedule, school district officials have griped about the influence of TEA’s parent organization, the Washington Education Association. They also have accused the union of being unavailable at times and of setting unilateral deadlines. Coons wrote in an online forum that while the WEA is providing help with bargaining, budget research and other issues, “TEA members make their own decisions.”
The district and the TEA, which includes more than 1,500 classroom teachers, have engaged in an exchange of words, with written website statements from Superintendent Art Jarvis and Coons. Coons wrote an op-ed piece for The News Tribune. Jarvis’ own opinion piece is scheduled for publication in the paper Sunday.
Both Jarvis and Coons declined to be interviewed by a News Tribune reporter this week.
Members of the Tacoma School Board also declined to comment publicly on the contract talks.
“I thought Art’s response was wonderful,” said school board President Kurt Miller, referring to a statement Jarvis posted on the School District website.
The district said in its Aug. 8 request for mediation that issues included wages, teacher evaluations, teacher transfers and assignments, class size and more. But TEA’s Coons said at the time that he was confused about the need for a mediator. He said then that negotiations hadn’t hit an impasse. Rather, he said, they had barely begun.
Jarvis said in his web statement that the district must deal with the 1.9-percent loss in funding for teacher salaries handed down by the Legislature.
“Facing this challenge involves difficult bargaining,” he wrote.
The district also has proposed increasing class size as a way to cope with other state budget cuts.
Teachers in the Bethel School District have approved a tentative agreement that cushions them from the 1.9-percent pay cut through the use of district savings. The Bethel School Board is scheduled to vote on the contract agreement Tuesday.
Teachers in the Peninsula School District approved an agreement in June that will pass along the state pay cuts in exchange for teachers working fewer days.
A coalition of community, minority and faith-based groups called Vibrant Schools Tacoma has asked for “transparency” in the bargaining process. The coalition wanted the School District and the union to post proposals online during negotiations. That happened in both the Bethel and Bellevue school districts.
But Jarvis, in his letter to the community, noted that transparency isn’t a magic bullet. While Bethel teachers have approved a contract, Bellevue also has called on state mediators for help.
But now, Vibrant Schools is worried about whether Tacoma negotiations will produce the type of reforms that it supports – reforms it says could boost achievement for minority students who lag behind.
“We simply cannot go through another three years with these results,” said coalition leader Bill Hanawalt, director of Peace Community Center in Tacoma. “Nor can our kids afford to miss any days of instruction. On behalf of our students, we’d like to be very clear: school should start on time with a contract aimed at increasing student learning and closing the achievement gap.”
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635 firstname.lastname@example.org