Union officials representing teachers in the Bethel School District say they are optimistic they can reach a contract agreement before the start of school Sept. 1.
But just as a reminder that negotiations between the Bethel Education Association and the school district remain unfinished, several hundred Bethel teachers rallied outside Tuesday night’s School Board meeting, then packed the board room to its 80-plus person capacity to directly address board members during their regular meeting.
Most wore the red T-shirts that have become a hallmark of teacher union support across the state.
Teachers who spoke addressed several of the issues still outstanding in negotiations, including pay and teacher participation in decision-making around testing.
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“I want to be a trusted, respected member of a team who has a meaningful say in the kind of assessments we give and the timing which goes with those tests,” said Challenger High School teacher Laura Hittenrauch, who has been teaching for 26 years. “I am the one who sees the effects those decisions have on my students.”
Jani Hitchen, a 19-year educator who teaches science at Graham-Kapowsin High School, said she hopes to retire from the profession some day. But she noted that sticking with her chosen career is getting harder as demands on teachers increase.
“Like so many of my colleagues, I am finding it more and more difficult to stay in this position,” she told the board. “My resources of time, energy and money are being drained by what is expected of me as a professional.”
Veteran Bethel High School teacher Jim Sawatzki warned board members that employee mood is “simmering.”
“The joy of teaching is slowly being taken out of the profession,” said Sawatzki, who called on the board to encourage district officials to “settle, and settle soon.”
We are committed to reaching a fair and equitable settlement with the union
Bethel School District spokeswoman Krista Carlson
Neither board members nor Superintendent Tom Seigel addressed teachers at the board meeting.
But the district has worked to increase communications surrounding contract negotiations. During the last three cycles of contract bargaining, district spokeswoman Krista Carlson said, the district and the BEA have posted contract offers and updates on the district website.
Seigel and individual board members, on a rotating basis, sit in on bargaining sessions so they are aware of the state of negotiations.
“We recognize and value the contributions our BEA members make for our students each day and the critical role they play in the success of our district,” Carlson said Wednesday. “Our administration is excited about the start of school, and we are committed to reaching a fair and equitable settlement with the union.”
Negotiations are to resume Thursday (Aug. 25), and continue into the weekend, if needed. While kids report to school Sept. 1, teachers are scheduled to be at work Monday and Tuesday. The contract expires Wednesday.
Bethel teachers last staged a strike in 2007.
The union and the district started contract talks in March, and a list of tentative agreements has been posted on the district website. Those issues include academic freedom, sick leave and student discipline.
Sticking points remained over the summer. Both sides agreed to call in a state mediator, who began meeting with both parties this month.
At the time, five primary issues were unsettled. Some movement has been made on the issues of school-based decision-making, committees to address teacher workload and teacher evaluations, but other points are being debated.
Testing and salary issues are under discussion as well.
We are not going to ask for things they can’t financially afford
Bethel Education Association President Bryan Grassi
The district’s latest offer would give teachers a 10 percent district-financed pay boost over three school years, beginning this year. That would be in addition to state cost-of-living bumps, set at 1.8 percent this year and 1.2 percent next year, but still to be determined for the 2018-19 school year.
Over three years, the district offer combined with state increases would give teachers a cumulative pay boost of 13 percent, plus whatever the state offers in the third year of the contract.
The union’s latest offer posted on the website asks for 16 percent in district increases over the same three-year period.
“We are not going to ask for things they can’t financially afford,” BEA President Bryan Grassi said.
Pay issues are particularly acute for beginning teachers, union officials say.
With a looming teacher shortage, they say it’s important to offer new teachers a reasonable starting salary. Young teachers shoulder debt from student loans in the tens of thousands of dollars, and as soon as they begin teaching, many also start working on professional or National Board certification, another expense.
Beginning Bethel teachers — fresh out of college with a bachelor’s degree and no experience — last year earned a salary of $41,577. That included the state-funded salary of $35,069 plus $6,488 in local dollars the district added.
The state-funded portion moves to $35,700 this year. The number of local dollars that will supplement that pay is being negotiated.
Several other Pierce County school districts have been negotiating new teacher contracts this summer.
Teachers in the Parkland-based Franklin Pierce School District voted Wednesday evening to accept a new three-year contract, local union President Pam Kruse said.
She said the contract offer is a good one that shows the district is willing to “make an investment in educators.”
Other districts still negotiating with teachers include Sumner, Clover Park, Steilacoom and Fife, according to the Washington Education Association.