It’s OK to be mad about Washington school funding mess. But internal strife stoked by teachers union is misdirected

Fratricidal warfare over K-12 school funding in Washington has come full circle, and Puyallup offers a cautionary case study of how ugly the infighting can get.

Anger over salaries erupted between Puyallup teachers and administrators in September, culminating in a three-day teacher strike. Now the acrimony has resurfaced in Tuesday’s no-confidence vote staged by the teachers union against Puyallup Superintendent Tim Yeomans.

His cardinal sin? Giving notice about possible teacher layoffs, as required by state law. Union officials melodramatically claim Yeomans “doesn’t respect us or our students,” absurdly adding that “he instigated the first-ever teacher strike in Puyallup” and that “he’s driven by his own ego.”

The coup de grâce: “Tim Yeomans has got to go!”

To launch personal attacks and ultimatums is unbefitting professionals who are role models for our youth. To launch them seven months after negotiating double-digit pay raises with Yeomans and the Puyallup School Board also strikes a sour note. The community’s memory isn’t that short.

Educators in Puyallup, Tacoma and elsewhere shouldn’t turn against one another but instead apply pressure where it belongs: on the Legislature.

Make no mistake: There’s plenty of frustration to go around as the state’s long school-funding nightmare drags on. Teachers, justifiably concerned about preserving jobs, are in the thick of it.

But don’t forget Washington taxpayers. They’re on the hook for a $7.3 billion investment legislators made in K-12 schools over five years. They’re underwriting teacher pay raises around the state, which top 10 percent in Puyallup and 14 percent in Tacoma. And they’re being whipsawed by unpredictable state and local property tax rates.

Seven years after the state Supreme Court ruled the school-funding system unconstitutional, and a year after the court ended its oversight in the landmark McCleary case, who can blame people for feeling things are as broken as ever?

Lawmakers in Olympia have no bigger task in the last days of this year’s session than completing the McCleary mop-up work left undone by previous legislatures.

That means shoring up underfunded special education classrooms with dedicated state revenue.

It also means giving modest help to school districts facing painful deficits next year, stretched thin by a combination of unsustainable local budgeting and a statewide McCleary “fix” that created winners and losers. Puyallup is staring at a $13.2 million shortfall in 2019-20, Tacoma $30 million.

With Democrats in charge, the Legislature will likely restore some flexibility to districts that want to collect more local levy dollars. But can that happen without being summoned back to court where this whole mess began? Woe to Washington if it winds up on the McCleary hamster wheel again.

In Puyallup, the teachers union decided to focus its wrath on the district superintendent. “Although Tim Yeomans has announced he is retiring in 2020, that’s not soon enough for the students and staff of the Puyallup School District,” the union chief said.

Yeomans may be starting to think it’s not soon enough for him, either.

Puyallup staff have known since last fall, when they signed their new contract, that more than 100 positions could be cut in the 2019-20 school year. “We communicated clearly last September that this would be our reality, and we are facing it now,” Yeomans wrote in a letter to staff Friday.

Yes, the blow will be softened by attrition and retirements. But pink slips will still go out before the state’s May 15 deadline.

“There’s not blame here, this is just math,” Yeomans told TNT reporter Allison Needles.

The math problem now before him is a test of the respected administrative record he’s compiled since coming to Puyallup in 2012. He helped the district pass its first bond measure in 12 years, he’s delivering new schools from that 2015 bond package on time and on budget, and he won a national leadership award for his work grooming future school administrators.

But he’s clearly fallen out of favor with rank-and-file teachers; 90 percent of those voting Tuesday expressed no confidence. Will the discord undermine community goodwill? Both sides should hope not, especially with a high-school improvement bond planned for next February’s ballot.

In Tacoma, by contrast, Superintendent Carla Santorno has maintained a tenuous peace with the teachers union. That’s partly because she’s cut 43 administrative positions this year in a phased, transparent manner. Santorno also pledged several steps to shield as many classroom jobs as possible, including spending down $7 million in district reserves.

But Tacoma, like Puyallup, is still required to issue a reduction-in-force notice, and Santorno didn’t mince words at Tacoma’s April 11 School Board meeting.

“I can tell you the impact in programs, services and staff support will be severe and felt across the district,” she said, “depending, of course, on what happens in the Legislature.”

State lawmakers have a tough needle to thread in the days ahead. Tacoma and Puyallup stakeholders will be watching closely. Meantime, a ceasefire among school colleagues would be good for everyone, including the students they’ve sworn to serve.