Tacoma teachers vote to approve new contract offer and end strike

It was a members-only vote, supposedly secret, but everyone inside and outside Tacoma’s Mount Tahoma High School knew what was coming.

The tidal roar in the gymnasium was the sound of yes. More than 2,000 teachers ratified an agreement that provided $23.3 million in salary increases and ended a seven-day strike that briefly fractured the city.

The vote to ratify was overwhelming: 2,022 yes, 23 no, for a margin of 99 percent.

It meant 28,000 students can start school Monday after a pro forma ratification from the school board, and it meant teachers would receive an average 14.4 percent raise. The bump was more than they’d hoped for, reflecting a sudden reversal from school district leaders, who had offered much less only 48 hours earlier.

While lauding the agreement, school district leaders pointed to the darker side of the new contract: a growing budget deficit.

“Initial calculations indicate Tacoma Public Schools will face a projected $38 million budget deficit for the 2019-2020 school year — if we don’t get legislative action,” the district’s online statement said.

The new offer slightly shocked teachers gathering in the gym.

Some said they would have accepted less two weeks earlier, when the initial offered raise was 3.1 percent. Seeing the new numbers on sheets passed out before the vote, many simply smiled. Others texted the terms on their phones, sharing the numbers with friends and family, and posting on social media.

“I’m ready to go back to work. I feel like we’ve been out long enough. It looks good,” said Ese Sesepasara, who teaches special education. She started working for the school district as a custodian 13 years ago, became a paraeducator, then obtained her teaching certificate.

The raise is a big one. First-year teachers will start with a salary of $54,308, eclipsing the previous baseline of $45,500. Teachers at the top end of the scale, with 20 years of experience and a doctorate, will top out at $108,529, up from the previous level of $90,900. Teachers with 10 years of experience and master’s degrees will receive $79,319, up from $68,473.

“That’s life-changing,” said Grant Ruby, a fifth-year math teacher at Lincoln High School. “I feel very, very good about this. We won a lot of the things that we wanted. We had to concede a few things, obviously. I don’t feel that any of the things we conceded are unacceptable.”

The agreement also includes a 14 percent raise for professional technical employees (such as maintenance workers) and a 19 percent raise for office professionals.

A weary Angel Morton, president of the Tacoma Education Association, greeted the crowd of teachers in the gym with a smile on her face.

“Today we’re here to ratify our agreement,” she said. The thumping din briefly drowned her out.

Throughout a series of statements from Morton and union negotiators, the crowd of teachers clapped and shouted.

They jeered school district spokesman Dan Voelpel, who served as the district’s public face during the strike, earning their ire. They cheered the name of Marianne Bigelow, the school district’s retired chief accountant, who raised concerns about the district’s budgeting practices as the strike reached its tense height.

School district leaders called the raises “among the most competitive salaries in the Puget Sound region,” highlighting the desire to retain and attract high-quality educators.

That point was a rallying cry for teachers during the strike. They had argued that surrounding districts granted double-digit raises to teachers following a complicated re-imagining of state school funding by state lawmakers: a 15 percent raise for teachers in Clover Park schools, a 12 percent raise for teachers in Franklin Pierce schools, among others.

The contract ratified in Tacoma finally hit the mark.

“I’ll take my $10,000 raise,” said Ruby, the Lincoln High teacher.

Throughout the strike, district leaders cited the prospect of a deficit as the chief roadblock to salaries teachers sought. The new contract doesn’t change that number — it increases it.

What changed?

Voelpel pointed to two things:

Tacoma teachers as well as the Washington Education Association agreed to endorse a statement saying fiscal changes wrought by the Legislature in 2017 and 2018 created inequities that damaged the school district’s finances. The local and state union agreed to push for a legislative solution.

Morton signed the statement, as did school board president Andrea Cobb and superintendent Carla Santorno.

Eight state lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans representing Pierce County communities, sent a Sept. 10 letter to school district leaders, announcing a commitment to fix the inequities in the 2019 legislative session.

“Absent those two things, we couldn’t have made this deal,” Voelpel said. “We are facing a $38 million deficit. That would mean catastrophic cuts. We need that fix in the Legislature. That’s the only way this deal works.”

Ruby suggested other factors drove the district’s decision to give teachers a better offer.

“The community support was overwhelming,” he said. “On Facebook and Twitter, every time the district posted they were just getting dragged. The support for the district was minimal. Social media made this go faster.”

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486 @seanrobinsonTNT