The group of people asked to make sense of the way Washington state pays teachers and other school employees was circling the drain.
Called the Compensation Technical Work Group, the 15 members last week struggled to weave through the education politics that created the inequitable and possibly unconstitutional system – the same education politics that now work against a resolution.
The members had already been told that teachers in Seattle and its suburbs get more pay than teachers elsewhere to cover higher costs. But the pay differential is covered by local levy dollars, even though the state is obligated under the state’s constitution and laws to cover all costs of basic education.
The group had already proposed that Seattle-area districts get up to 8 percent extra from the state to pay higher salaries. But then it got stuck on the next step:
If the state picks up all costs of basic teacher pay, including higher pay in the Seattle area, it cannot also leave unchanged the way local levy dollars are bargained into compensation. Doing one but not the other would amount to a double correction that would exacerbate funding inequities among districts.
Politics was the problem. Just about every district outside the Seattle area opposes the regional pay differential. Why should teachers in Bridgeport make less than those in Bellevue, especially when the Bridgeports of the state already lose teachers to the Bellevues? And they certainly wouldn’t support regional pay if local bargaining wasn’t restricted.
Yet any proposal seen to restrict local collective bargaining for pay would just as certainly bring a hostile reaction from the Washington Education Association, the state teachers union.
“The WEA would die on the cross over the issue of local bargaining” is how Lake Washington Superintendent Chip Kimball described the political realities.
“I don’t think we can come to consensus either way,” said Shawn Lewis, deputy superintendent in Bellevue.
It is understandable that a group of school board members, superintendents, principals, and education and personnel experts as well as union representatives would have trouble fixing a system in less than a year when it took 35 years for it to become such a mess.
Since a previous state Supreme Court ruling ordered changes, the state has gradually fallen behind in its duty to pay all costs of what it defined as basic education, including salaries.
That shortfall has led to an increased use of local levy money to make up the difference. State law says levy money can be used to pay only for additional time, responsibilities and incentives, known as TRI compensation. But such distinctions have become blurred over time as more and more levy money has been bargained into compensation. Districts face pressure at the table to match what others have agreed to. Less money is available for program enhancements.
House Bill 2261, passed in 2009, called for reforming how the state pays for education, and it asked technical work groups to delve into the details.
But just as it looked like the compensation work group might fail after a year of work, WEA lobbyist and budget analyst Randy Parr wondered if the solution could come from two words: salary cap.
Here is how it might work: Once the state takes on the duty of paying all compensation costs for basic education, local unions and districts could continue to bargain over the use of levy money. But the amount of local money that could go into additional pay would be capped at, say, 10 percent of what the state distributed in pay.
If a local district wanted to use its cap capacity to cover a regional pay differential, it could. But the state wouldn’t pick up the regional pay boosts and would no longer enforce how levy money was used, so districts would no longer have to pretend that local-levy money is going only for TRI.
Kimball dubbed the plan “bucket-plus,” with bucket being the compensation costs sent to the districts by the state and plus being the local addition.
“The locals would take responsibility for ‘plus’ but plus can’t be so inequitable that teachers would, of course, go to Mercer Island or Bellevue instead of Davenport or Spokane.” Kimball said. “It could get back to what the local levy was intended for.”
“It won’t be perfectly equitable, but it will be more equitable than we have now,” said Lewis. “At least there would be a limit.”
The group agreed with the concept unanimously and has two more meetings to work out the details. But it may end up with a proposal that avoids the political roadblocks and has an easier time once it hits the Legislature.email@example.com