Tacoma teacher contract talks stall, raising fears of strike

Aug 29, 2011

The first day of school for Tacoma students is just a few days away, but their teachers might not show up.

They have yet to reach an agreement over their contract with the school district. That leaves many families worried that a strike could be on the horizon.

Both sides say they want to settle on a contract before school starts, it’s just that they’ve hit some sticking points. Adrienne Dale, vice president of the Tacoma Education Association, says the union’s top concerns have nothing to do with pay:

“It’s basically around 2 major issues. We do not want an increase in class size. We’re also very concerned that the administration is seeking to micromanage what happens in our classrooms. We want teachers to be able to make those decisions themselves.”

The district's plan to balance the budget

Superintendent Art Jarvis proposed upping the number of students in Tacoma classes by two kids at each grade level with the option of adding one more the following year. He says that would save the district more than $2 million.

It’s one of several measures administrators have suggested to make up for a more than $26 million budget shortfall. Other cuts, which have been approved by the school board, include:

  • the closure of two elementary schools – Wainwright and McKinley
  • eliminating nearly 100 positions
  • reductions in food service and transportation funding

The district also has to figure out how to deal with a 1.9 percent cut to teacher salaries handed down by state lawmakers, but subject to union approval.

Dale says Tacoma teachers don’t want to take the hit.   

Dan Voelpel, spokesman for the district, says while there are some differences of opinion about how to deal with funding cuts from the state, no one is likely to be immune from pay cuts. The principal's union and some high-level administrators agreed to a 1.39 percent drop in compensation on Saturday.

“We all need to pitch in and we’re trying to make it work for the kids and not eliminate programs in the schools. And I think that’s the reality that we’re facing.”

Teachers say shortfall doesn't add up

The teacher’s union disagrees with what the “reality” of the situation is.

Dale points to the district’s rainy days funds (which the union claims total $45 million while the district says it has $39 million) as a reason the union shouldn’t have to budge. 

If the 2 sides can’t come to an agreement, students might not need to come to class next week. She says “many teachers are unwilling to start school without a new contract.”

The current contract is set to expire on Aug. 31. Tacoma teachers haven't voted to strike since 1988, according to the school district.

Other districts could also have late start

Contract negotiations in other districts have hit similar stalemates. Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association, estimates nearly 100 teacher or support-staff contracts in the state are still unsettled, according to Nancy Bartley of The Seattle Times.

She writes that while teachers in the Bellevue district remain far apart on a salary cut for teachers, control over how teachers spend their Wednesday afternoons when students have early-release, and how many weeks teachers have to post grades on their school websites.

School districts in Seattle, Lake Washington and Kent have successfully renegotiated their contracts.