As teacher strike roils, former accountant says school leaders’ bad budgeting deepened fiscal pit

The continuing strike by Tacoma teachers heated to a rolling boil Wednesday.

School district leaders made a public show of presenting their latest offer to increase salaries, contending it amounted to a 12.45 percent bump that would deepen the district’s budget deficit to $35 million and lead to hundreds of layoffs. Picket-waving teachers swiftly condemned the offer as a sham backed by fiscal chicanery, saying it was more like 6.95 percent, well below the double-digit increase they’re seeking.

Meanwhile, the district’s former chief accountant weighed in, saying poor budgeting decisions by district leaders contributed to the current fiscal turmoil.

The district started the day with a news conference announcing the latest offer to striking teachers.

“Yesterday afternoon, we proposed a competitive offer that keeps us right near the top of the region and will continue to attract and retain the best teachers,” district spokesman Dan Voelpel said. Tacoma School Board President Andrea Cobb also spoke, saying district leaders support teachers and want the strike to end.

As Voelpel and Cobb spoke, hundreds of teachers picketing outside the district’s central administration building shouted slogans, nearly drowning out the speakers from three floors below.

After the news conference, Tacoma Education Association president Angel Morton questioned the district’s math.

“We don’t believe that they’re offering over 12 percent,” she said. “We don’t know how they’re coming to their percentage points. They’re not sharing their costing with us.”

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The dueling claims, counterclaims and high tension suggested the strike could continue through the end of the week and perhaps longer. The district announced Wednesday afternoon that school would be closed on Thursday, meaning the strike would reach Day 6.

According to school district figures, the latest offer to teachers would pay a first-year teacher $52,589 annually. The median salary would be $78,359. The high end would reach $104,128. The district claims those numbers compare favorably with surrounding districts that have already approved double-digit salary increases in the wake of the state Legislature’s long-running adjustments to statewide education funding.

The teachers’ union contends the district’s numbers are inflated with “recycled money,” in part because the district is using so-called professional development days to pad the totals. Professional development days are optional work days for teachers — in theory, they already get paid for them. Morton added that teachers with more experience don’t see sufficient increases in the district’s offer.

“The numbers are starting to come up in the entry-level years, but our experienced and middle-experience educators are not making comparable wages with neighboring districts yet,” she said.

The next steps looked fluid Wednesday. A possible fact-finding hearing by the state Public Employment Relations Commission is set for Monday, but a separate legal move could come first. Rumors swirled throughout the day that the district would seek an injunction against the teachers in Pierce County Superior Court, possibly on Friday.

“It’s an option under consideration,” Voelpel said.

Such a move occurred during the last teachers’ strike in Tacoma in 2011. The district sought and obtained an injunction against striking teachers that year. The strike was ultimately resolved when then-Gov. Chris Gregoire ordered the two sides to a bargaining session.

The district contends state lawmakers created inequities with the so-called “McCleary fix,” giving new state money with one hand, and taking it away with the other by limiting the amount districts can collect from local levies.

However, a new voice in the debate suggests that financial wounds and deficits school district leaders blame on state lawmakers actually are self-inflicted.

“They do have a point. They’re broke. But it was a hole they kind of put themselves into,” said Marianne Bigelow, the school district’s former chief accountant, who retired in April of this year.

“They spent their savings,” she added. “The Tacoma School District is going broke because of over-staffing.”

Bigelow retired after 13 years of service, earlier than she intended, frustrated by short-sighted fiscal decision-making that drained the district’s budget reserves. She said she questioned those decisions at the time, but the district’s senior administrators pushed ahead.

Bigelow pointed to district budget documents, publicly available, that show Tacoma leads the state’s 10 largest districts in administrative costs. The same records show that among the state’s top 10 districts, Tacoma spent 4.03 percent less per student on teaching than the average.

Additional public records show that salaries for nine senior administrators increased by 26.3 percent over the last four years. Superintendent Carla Santorno sits at the top of the scale. Her annual compensation rose from $291,495 in 2015-16 to $343,094 in the 2018-19 cycle.

Bigelow also noted that a decision to add 150 full-time employees in the 2016-17 budget cycle cost the district $9 million in budget reserves at a time when student enrollment — the skeleton key to school financing — wasn’t keeping up with spending. Subsequent decisions added staff while enrollment stayed flat. In some cases, she said the hires were made in the wrong places. The district lost $1.9 million in state revenue that same year because it failed to add enough teachers for students in kindergarten through grade 3.

“If senior leadership had made better financial decisions in earlier years, the district would not be in the trouble they are in today,” Bigelow said. “The district would be able to offer teachers an acceptable package to end the strike, and school would be in session right now.”


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Cobb, the school board president, said looking at administrative numbers “flatly, on paper” didn’t tell the full story of the issues. Asked whether she felt the district should rank first in the state for administrative costs, she said she wouldn’t go that far.

“I don’t think that’s what I’m saying,” she said. “I’m saying you can’t look at the numbers on paper and make value judgments about whether those decisions are right or wrong.”

She added that she would need to “unpack what the dynamics were” when earlier budget decisions were made and called it “a complicated story to tell.”

From Bigelow’s vantage point, the story isn’t that complicated.

“It’s pretty basic,” she said. ”Why did they go down this path knowing what was coming? All of us in school finance knew what was coming. Many districts started building their reserves for the coming unknown. Tacoma, instead, drew down its reserves to almost nothing.”

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486 @seanrobinsonTNT