Seattle Teachers Will Go On Strike, Closing State's Largest District Starting Wednesday

Sep 8, 2015

Seattle teachers union members will go on strike for the first time since 1985 on Wednesday, a move that cancels what was supposed to be the first regular day of classes for the roughly 53,000 students in Washington's largest school district.

Unable to resolve their differences over how much to pay educators, district proposals to lengthen the school day and a union push to limit standardized testing, union leaders ended negotiations on a new teacher contract without an agreement around 6 p.m. Tuesday night.

Not even an hour later, Seattle school board members voted 5-1 to allow district superintendent Larry Nyland to pursue legal action that might shorten the strike. In Washington state, public employees' right to strike is not protected by law, meaning there's nothing to stop a judge from ordering teachers back to work.

Leaders of the union, the Seattle Education Association (SEA), said the two sides' negotiating teams had made strides to bridge differences over issues, such as easing caseloads for counselors and therapists, and altering how the district evaluates teachers.

But the perennial issue of teacher pay turned into a key stumbling block.

SEA vice president Phyllis Campano, who led the union's bargaining efforts, said the two sides have not yet agreed on whether to pursue a two- or three-year schedule of salary increases for educators.

Campano said the union had proposed increasing pay by 5 percent in the first year and 5.5 percent in the second year of a new deal — a smaller ask than the 6 percent pay hikes they'd sought earlier.

As talks progressed Tuesday, district negotiators had proposed a three-year contract with pay increases of 2 percent this year, 3.2 percent next year and 3.75 percent the year after that, Campano said.

Though a Seattle Public Schools spokeswoman declined to confirm specifics of their proposals, district officials said Tuesday morning the union's proposals would've cost more than $172 million. That's nearly three times what district officials estimated their proposals would cost: $62 million.

Complicating the matter of compensation was a district proposal to lengthen the student school day by 30 minutes. But union leaders said the district's proposal would've taken a bite out of their before- and after school prep time. And this would not have come with a commensurate pay increase. 

"It is the number one priority of the Seattle school board that we find a successful resolution to these contract negotiations, and that we get our students to school as quickly as possible," board president Sherry Carr said during a brief news conference. "We are most interested in a solution that works for both sides."

Carr blamed the strike on a "profoundly broken" state funding model, saying there were not enough dollars being put into the system, and we have that over-reliance on local levy dollars. The combination of those two things makes funding the kind of contract we would all like to see very challenging."

The state Supreme Court's ruling in the McCleary case does chide the state legislature for leaning too much on local property tax revenues to pay teachers competitive salaries.

Case-in-point: state funding only partially covers the cost of a teacher salary increase lawmakers included in the state's new two-year budget, leaving local school districts on the hook to pick up part of the cost.

But Seattle Education Association leaders said Carr's argument was still disingenuous. They believed the district had received more than $39 million increase in state funding and that the district had some flexibility in how to spend it. (District officials dispute this, saying much of the funding is spoken for.) 

"There's also a levy increase that comes along with increased funding for the state," SEA president Jonathan Knapp. said. "Clearly the priorities are different for the board than they are for us. We think we need to invest in educators so they can really be successful with kids. The district school board seems to have other priorities."

Over the weekend, district officials asked parents to begin making tentative child care plans in case teachers decided to strike. City officials announced they would hold all-day camps at 16 community centers on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, for up to 850 students between the ages 5-12.

Ben Kersten said he signed his son Oliver up for care at the city's Hiawatha Community Center. Kersten's son was supposed to start kindergarten at Lafayette Elementary in West Seattle on Wednesday.

"I'm bummed that he's not starting kindergarten because we've been building it up all summer, we've been telling him how he's been starting kindergarten, and now we're going to tell him ... he's not," Kersten said. "I'm sure they have great reasons why they're going on strike. It seems really unfair to the kids."

Jana Robbins, parent of a fourth grader and a second grader of Seattle Public Schools, attended Tuesday night's school board meeting holding a sign supporting teachers. Earlier this year, Robbins began an online petition to increase recess time in Seattle Public Schools — an issue the union's bargaining team also pushed in negotiations.

"It's definitely an inconvenience to parents, but I hold the school district fully responsible and not the teachers," Robbins said. "That's because the teachers aren't just asking for contract that's fair for teachers. They're asking for a contract that's fair for students and they're asking for far more than just pay."

Campano said as of Tuesday evening, the two sides had not yet scheduled their next bargaining session. Teachers will begin picketing Wednesday morning at 8:30 a.m.

KPLU reporter Ashley Gross contributed to this report. This post was updated at 9 p.m. Tuesday evening.