Teacher strikes in Tacoma and Puyallup look more likely as salary negotiations stall

Sept. 4 looks like zero hour for potential teacher strikes in Tacoma and Puyallup.

Teacher unions in the two school districts — the largest in Pierce County, serving a collective 52,000 students — are poised to hit the streets if they can’t reach agreements with school district leaders over hoped-for salary increases.

Tacoma teachers were close to a strike vote Wednesday evening, but they lacked the necessary attendance to hold a formal vote, leaders said. A strike decision requires about 1,500 yes votes from the 2,400 members. Only 1,300 members appeared.

Union leaders have scheduled another meeting for Tuesday, Sept. 4 at Mount Tahoma High School, where they hope to have a quorum. The union made its purpose plain in a tweet posted Wednesday evening:

“To be perfectly clear, we are meeting on Tuesday to decide whether we strike.”

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">To be perfectly clear, we are meeting on Tuesday to decide whether we strike. We did not meet our bare minimum threshold for votes last night. That means more than one third of your colleagues did not attend. We need YOU to spread the word! <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/RedForEd?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#RedForEd</a> <a href="https://t.co/p2mXeER5Tq">https://t.co/p2mXeER5Tq</a></p>&mdash; Tacoma Ed Assoc TEA (@WeTeachTacoma) <a href="https://twitter.com/WeTeachTacoma/status/1035175059118153728?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">August 30, 2018</a></blockquote>

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Puyallup teachers have taken more of an if-then approach. Wednesday, members voted to strike by Sept. 4 if they can’t agree on a new contract with district leaders. They’re seeking a double-digit salary increase. Puyallup district leaders say they can’t go that high.

Elsewhere in Pierce County, teachers in the Sumner and Bethel school districts are also seeking new contracts and pondering their own strike votes.

The unrest, mirrored in districts across the state, flows from the same source: the McCleary decision, or as teachers call it, “the McCleary promise.” The long-running legal case revolved around the state’s formula for funding basic education, adjusted by state lawmakers in 2017 and 2018 after the state Supreme Court ruled the existing formula was inadequate.

The revised state plan altered long-standing funding mechanisms, adding more state revenue while capping local levy revenue and limiting discretionary spending on salaries. In theory, the approach promised full funding for basic education, including increases in teacher salaries after several years of delay as the state ironed out the dispute.

The hope was that teachers across the state could count on average raises of 15 percent. Fiscal realities have revealed a different picture.

Districts such as Tacoma, accustomed to using local levy money for bumps in teacher salaries, found themselves unable to draw on that funding source. They say they’ve been penalized by a “regionalization factor” that allocated more state money to some districts than others. The result: Other districts benefited from new state money and agreed on double-digit raises for their teachers, while districts such as Tacoma came up short in state funding.

Tacoma schools superintendent Carla Santorno highlighted the issue in an Aug. 21 statement, calling the state plan “a mistake” and warning of a “looming financial disaster.” Tacoma district leaders contend that they receive less money per student under the state’s plan and face a corresponding $25 million budget deficit in 2019.

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Those factors led Tacoma district leaders to pass a budget that offered a 0.6 percent salary increase on top of a previously agreed 2.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment.

In hard dollars, that means Tacoma teachers, who earned an average salary of $74,800 in 2017-18, according to school district figures, would see average salaries increase to $77,118 in 2018-19 — far less than the 15 percent increase they expected, which would have translated to an average annual salary of $86,020. Those salary numbers climb depending on other factors, such as graduate degrees and length of service.

Tacoma teachers, seeing their colleagues in neighboring districts receive double-digit salary increases (15 percent in the Clover Park School District, for example), say they can’t accept the district’s terms. They believe the district has more fiscal flexibility than leaders have indicated.

“My members are very angry,” said Tacoma Education Association president Angel Morton. “They feel very disregarded by the school board and the superintendent. Mostly I’ve heard people say the districts around us have figured out how to get this done.”

Negotiations between the district and union leaders resumed Thursday afternoon. A mediator from the state Public Employment Relations Commission, requested by district leaders, joined the talks.

Dan Voelpel, Tacoma schools spokesman, said Thursday that the underlying contract offer hadn’t changed since earlier in the week. He did not know whether that would change in the course of Thursday’s bargaining session.

“We will continue to bargain in good faith and explore every option possible,” he said. “At the same time, it’s now become evident to everyone, given the widespread labor unrest across the state, that this isn’t just a Tacoma problem.

“It’s a problem with the funding formula for education in Washington. Some districts, as we’ve seen, have been able to grant huge raises to their teachers because they got a huge influx of new cash while Tacoma and other districts did not.”

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486 @seanrobinsonTNT