Tacoma and Puyallup teachers vote to strike; first day of school on hold

Teachers in Tacoma and Puyallup voted Tuesday evening to strike, delaying the start of school for about 52,000 South Sound students.

Votes by teacher unions in the two districts passed by 97 percent and 98 percent, respectively. Puyallup teachers will hit the streets Wednesday. Tacoma teachers will break out their picket signs Thursday.

After a boisterous union membership meeting at Mt. Tahoma High School, Tacoma teachers said they couldn’t accept the latest contract proposal from school district leaders.

“It’s increasingly clear that the school district has a very different set of priorities than you do,” said Tacoma Education Association president Angel Morton, speaking to the crowd in the school’s packed gymnasium.

“They’re focused on the showmanship of education, and we’re focused on what really matters.”

Tacoma teachers briefly considered votes of no confidence in Superintendent Carla Santorno and the entire school board, but the motions failed on voice votes.

The school district, alerted quickly to Tuesday’s vote, posted a statement on its website.

“The school district has been bargaining with teachers union representatives during the last few months to determine salary increases for teachers for the 2018-2019 school year,” the statement read. “Unfortunately, we have not come to an agreement yet. We understand that this uncertainty so close to the start of school is stressful on our students, our families, our staff members and our community.

Puyallup Education Association president Karen McNamara said the decision to strike was not made lightly.

“In 72 years as representing the teachers in this district, we have never struck against our district,” she said. “I hope we find a resolution for this quickly. In this community we have always, always valued our educators. I believe sitting in tonight our community continues to value us. And while our school board is giving us these heartfelt, tearful, things that they value us — OK, great. Put your money where your mouth is.”

Reacting to Tuesday’s vote and the negotiations ahead, Puyallup Schools superintendent Tim Yeomans said, “We want to get this right. We want to make sure this is sustainable. And what I do not want to do is look at our 200 youngest teachers in the face and say, ‘I gave away your job because I couldn’t do the math.’”

The first day of school in Puyallup — set for Wednesday — had already been canceled before Tuesday evening’s vote as negotiations continued. In Tacoma, the strike vote means school won’t start on Thursday, either.

In both districts, salaries represent the heart of the dispute. Teachers say school leaders are falling short of the “McCleary promise,” a reference to a long-running state-level debate over education funding.

State lawmakers, under scrutiny from the Washington state Supreme Court, attempted to resolve the funding issues in 2017 and 2018 by restructuring the complicated fiscal formula for distributing local and state property-tax revenue, the primary source for school funding.

The solution, intended to increase teacher salaries throughout the state, provided more state funding while capping local levies, often used by individual districts to augment salaries. The state’s 2018 supplemental budget added about $1 billion for teacher salaries.

The impact prompted unrest and sometimes bitter negotiations across the state’s 295 school districts this summer. Many districts reached new agreements with teachers, but a handful are already on strike, including districts in Clark County, Longview and Tumwater.

Part of the strife in Tacoma and Puyallup stems from recent agreements in surrounding districts, often marked by double-digit salary increases. Local teachers say they deserve similar raises.

Under Tacoma’s current contract, teachers earn between $45,500 and $90,928 annually, depending on a combination of years of service and academic experience. Those figures exclude benefits. In Puyallup, the current contract pays teachers $47,062 to $92,677, based on the same factors.

On Friday, Seattle teachers approved an agreement that featured salary increases of 10.5 percent. In the Peninsula School District, teachers approved a contract that set salary increases ranging from 9 percent to 15 percent, depending on a variety of factors. Teachers in the Franklin Pierce and Clover Park School Districts recently agreed to contracts with raises of 12 percent and 15 percent respectively.

In contrast, the latest offer from Tacoma School District leaders, received Monday evening, offered teachers an average 7.5-percent increase, according to correspondence from Tacoma Education Association president Angel Morton. Tacoma teachers are seeking a 19 percent increase.

The offer from district leaders reflects movement. Last week, the district was standing firm with an offer of a 3.1-percent salary increase. Teachers contend that the offer was really an 0.6-percent increase with a cost-of-living adjustment agreed to before state lawmakers approved their McCleary fix.

On the union’s Facebook page, leaders emphasized the desire for salary increases competitive with other districts, seeking “fair compensation that is competitive with neighboring districts” and “gains for every member in each group that TEA represents,” which includes office professionals and so-called professional-technical employees.

Events moved swiftly Tuesday as Tacoma school district leaders posted announcements describing their latest offer. Teachers quickly dismissed it as fiscal sleight-of-hand, saying the district included previously “optional” training days in the new offer and counted them as work days while calling the addition a salary increase.

“I know that the school district is shuffling money that is already ours and calling it a raise,” Morton said Tuesday afternoon. “It’s not new money into our salaries.”

The district also continued to argue Tuesday that the state’s funding formula short-changed Tacoma, forcing administrators to balloon a projected $25 million budget deficit for 2019-20 if teachers get large raises.

“The district’s increased offer to the Tacoma Education Association will raise that projected deficit to $32 million and add projected layoffs of 115 more positions,” an online posting stated.

In Puyallup, district leaders posted their latest offer on the school district’s website. Leaders described it as an average 6.6-percent raise, adding that prior increases over the previous four years, including the latest offer, would equate to a 22.7-percent average salary increase since 2015.

How long will the strikes last? In Tacoma, Morton, the union president, wasn’t sure.

“This could very well be a long haul,” she said. “Tacoma and Puyallup seem to be taking plays out of the same book right now.”

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486 @seanrobinsonTNT