Where’s the money? As teacher strikes continue in Tacoma and Puyallup, debates over numbers reveal division

Tacoma teachers and school district leaders continued to negotiate Thursday, but the strike announced by teachers Wednesday showed no signs of ending.

“It’s pretty bad,” said Tacoma Education Association president Angel Morton, asked about the state of negotiations.

Meanwhile, the school district posted an announcement at 5 p.m., informing parents that school would not start Friday — a ritual that could repeat itself in the coming days. The same pattern played out in the Puyallup School District, where teachers are also on strike.

“They bargained late into the evening,” Puyallup communications director Brian Fox said Thursday about bargaining Wednesday night.

It’s not clear whether school will resume Monday in Puyallup or Tacoma. Both districts will continue to send announcements to parents.

While many districts across the state recently agreed to contracts that featured substantial salary increases for teachers, Tacoma, the state’s third largest district, remains at an impasse, along with Puyallup and a handful of other districts around the state.

What’s preventing an agreement? It’s all about salaries. Here’s a closer look at the dispute.

Question: What do teachers want?

Answer: They want salary increases, but they want those increases to mirror or come close to salary increases across the state, which have averaged double digits this year. For example, the Shoreline School District recently agreed to give teachers a 24 percent salary increase. Seattle teachers received a 10.5 percent increase. Clover Park teachers received a 15 percent increase.

In contrast, Tacoma School District leaders initially offered teachers a 3.1 percent salary increase, which teachers say isn’t good enough.

“I can’t tell my people in good faith, ‘You shouldn’t leave Tacoma,’ when they can make $10,000 or $15,000 more somewhere else,” Morton said. “That’s a huge difference in middle income.”

Q: What do Tacoma teachers make now?

A: According to the most recent contract for 2017-18, a first-year teacher in Tacoma with a bachelor’s degree starts at $45,500. A teacher with 20 years of experience and a doctorate makes $90,928.

Q: What would teachers make according to the school district’s latest offer?

A: The answer isn’t simple, but the “base” salary in Tacoma’s latest published offer would give a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree $47,189. A teacher with a doctorate and 20 years in Tacoma would get $94,304. The numbers shift depending on other factors, including the number of so-called “optional days” teachers can use.

Morton, the Tacoma union leader, said the district’s latest offer takes the optional work days, converts them to mandatory days and counts them as part of an offered raise. Teachers don’t like that.

“Those are days that we can use for professional development or work-related activities. We choose when we do that,” she said. “They’re proposing to eliminate some of those optional hours, put that money into salary and call it a raise, but that’s money my people are making already. That’s not a raise.”

Conversely, a first-year teacher in the Sumner-Bonney Lake School District would start at $53,000, while a teacher with 15 years of experience and a doctorate would reach $99,161.

The disparity prompted a gloomy tweet from Lincoln High School teacher Nate Bowling, the state’s teacher of the year in 2016, noting that first-year Tacoma teachers could boost their salaries by $10,000 with a short drive.

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">I&#39;m sitting at a table with two first year teachers, a math teacher, and an NBCT English teacher, and all of them would earn a $10,000 raise by driving 20min to Sumner. <a href="https://t.co/zAGlg7xfUH">pic.twitter.com/zAGlg7xfUH</a></p>&mdash; nate bowling (@nate_bowling) <a href="https://twitter.com/nate_bowling/status/1037193980633600001?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">September 5, 2018</a></blockquote>

<script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>

Q: Why are the salary increases higher in some districts than others?

A: Partly because leaders in those districts agreed to the increases — but the bigger reason is the state Legislature’s massive adjustment to education funding, passed in 2017 and revised in 2018 in response to a court order.

The case, known as McCleary, mired lawmakers in a budgetary pit for six years. The state Supreme Court said lawmakers had fallen short of a constitutional mandate to fully fund basic education. The budget maneuvers of 2017 and 2018 were intended to meet that mandate, and the high court approved the plan.

The end of the six-year battle created what teachers call the “McCleary promise,” since it was specifically targeted to increase teacher salaries.

Q: If the court said the problem was fixed, why is Tacoma having trouble?

A: The state’s legislative fix used complicated formulas to increase state funding for schools and salaries while capping the amount districts could draw from local property tax levies. Part of the equation was described as a “regionalization factor,” intended to help teachers afford housing in their districts. It gave more money to some districts and less to others. Tacoma and Puyallup, where property values are lower, were among the districts that received less.

Tacoma was doubly damaged by the cap on local levy money, according to schools spokesman Dan Voelpel. He refers to the regionalization factor as a “location bonus” that rewarded rich districts while punishing those with higher poverty levels.

One effect: Though Tacoma school voters overwhelmingly supported a continued local levy in February, the supplemental budget passed by lawmakers a few weeks later limited the amount the district could collect.

“The Legislature set the funding formula so you could collect a local levy at one of two amounts, whichever was lower,” Voelpel said. “You can collect up to $2,500 per student or $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value, whichever is less. We’re a low property-value urban district, so we get stuck with that low amount. We can’t collect the $70 million the voters said they were willing to pay. We’re stuck with $40 million. We lost $30 million right there. We don’t think that’s fair at all. We think that’s inequitable.”

Q: Haven’t teachers received raises in past years?

A: Yes, but in some cases, those raises reflect cost-of-living increases (COLAs) year over year, which are mandated under state law and a voter-approved initiative that dates to 2001. Teachers don’t view those COLAs as raises. They see them as a matter of legal compliance that has nothing to do with the McCleary promise.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Puyallup Education Assocation President Karen McNamara. “This (the state‘s McCleary package) was salary collection money that was owed us. It was supposed to go to certified educators.”

Q: Does Tacoma have the money to give the teachers what they want?

A: The question is the heart of the dispute. It’s driving the strikes in Tacoma and Puyallup. In Tacoma, school district leaders say they face a $25 million budget deficit as a result of the state’s new funding plan.

Tacoma teachers agree that the state’s plan hurt their district, but they also note that the district received a one-time $12 million funding injection to offset the losses. Morton notes that the school district’s funding for 2018-19, combining state and local revenue, equates to $14,381 per student — greater than the $12,575 the district received in 2017-18, and greater than this year’s statewide average.

“They’re still getting more money than they were last year,” she said. “And next year’s per-pupil funding is still above the statewide average.”

Morton added that local legislators, Democrat and Republican, have said they will correct the statewide funding formula in next year’s legislative session, providing a long-term solution.

“Our representatives have said they’re already at work on figuring the formulas so there isn’t an ongoing loss, so they’re going to get that corrected,” she said.

Voelpel said district leaders can’t budget on hope. Even with the added $12 million from the state, the district is still fiscally behind.

“We can’t spend one-time money on ongoing costs,” he said. “We could not afford the bow wave. We don’t just raise the salaries for teachers in one year and drop them back when the funding drops. Whatever we raise them, we have to pay in perpetuity and the money’s not there to do it. That’s pretty clear from both their numbers and ours.”

Staff writer Allison Needles contributed to this report.

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486 @seanrobinsonTNT