Superintendent asks for patience amid potential teacher strikes, and districts figure out funding

Aug 15, 2018, 12:20 PM | Updated: 1:11 pm

The first day of school is just around the corner for kids in our state, and along with the school year comes teacher strikes. Many teachers across Washington are unhappy with their pay and that could lead to delays for the start of the school year in some districts.

Hundreds of teachers from multiple districts held rallies Wednesday to demand higher pay. Teachers for Seattle Public Schools planned a rally for 4 p.m.

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State Schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal has a message for everyone.

“Be patient out there with your school districts, they’re all going through a very new finance system,” he said. “Every single district, for the first time in our state, has to collectively bargain at the exact same time. Normally, it’s about one out of every three or four districts every year. It’s everybody right now because of the new finance system.”

That new finance system is the result of what’s known as the McCleary decision which mandated the state meet its own constitutional obligations to fully fund K-12 education. The state Supreme Court finally found state legislators in compliance in June after the Legislature worked out the final piece of the puzzle this last session — teacher pay.

“And districts were treated very differently, ” Reykdal said. “There are some contracts that are coming out and really significant increases for teachers and the districts have resources. There are other districts who just simply didn’t get that kind of resource and it’s going to get a little bit tense over the next couple weeks as that becomes a reality.”

The McCleary formula includes more state money for districts to address teacher pay this year, based on inflation and regional home prices. Reykdal says that, along with new limits on local dollars used for school budgets, is leading to a very lopsided result district-to-district.

“Some districts got very large regional bumps while we simultaneously are reducing local levies this next school year by statute,” Reykdal said. “And so some districts, that’s kind of neutral to them like they were collecting in the past what they’re allowed to collect now, but for some districts they are losing a significant amount of local money and didn’t get necessarily a lot of new state money, and so those are districts that can keep up in terms of inflation, but there’s simply no way that every district can do double-digit pay increases this next year.”

More than two dozen districts have reached tentative contracts already. They are seeing pay increases of between 12-34 percent. Many neighboring districts are only being offered around a 3.1 percent pay bump and Reykdal says that’s got districts and teachers at odds.

“It’s harsh when it’s just like neighbor-to-neighbor,” he said. “You know, we’ve seen this in the past with rural districts with low cost of living versus Seattle. I mean these are common, but when it is literally one district can do it and a neighboring district can’t because of the regional model the Legislature used or the levy model or whatever. It’s understandable how the legislature got here. It is not the most functioning system as of yet.”

Part of the problem is districts are interpreting the Legislature’s intent differently, with some believing the broad language in the McCleary bills was meant to cap teacher salaries at 3.1 percent this year, and other districts — and most teachers and unions — not seeing it that way.

Reykdal sent a letter to lawmakers last month outlining concerns about this and other issues with McCleary and the difficult bargaining environment they were creating. He worries we could see teacher strikes because of a lack of understanding of the situation on both sides.

“I think educators don’t necessarily have all the information about how limited some districts are, and I think some district administrators are trying to limit what they believe is in law that we don’t necessarily share,” Reykdal said. “So somewhere between cost of living and something higher is the real number and the right number for most districts and it’s going to take a while for them to get to that, but it could be pretty tense … and some labor stoppages are certainly a risk at this point because of that lack of understanding.”

This is all an issue Reykdal saw coming as the Legislature hammered out the McCleary formula. He even even warned lawmakers about it.

“I think anytime you’re talking about policy that isn’t implicating their taxing authority, but rather the vote of the local community, I see no reason why anyone should get in the way of that as long as it has legitimate boundaries around it,” he said. “I just think it was never a good idea to tell local people that they cannot, by a vote of their own citizens, support their kids more. I continue to be dumbfounded by that as a logical conclusion.”

And without action in Olympia, Reykdal says the situation will only get worse.

“Because for this first year, districts still have the benefit of large fund balances because they’re getting the new state money and for say six months into the next school year they’ll still be getting their local levy before those tax collections cut off significantly,” Reykdal said.

“I actually am more worried that districts feel like they have some fund balance right now to play with and that absolutely will not be the case a year from now when they are fully into the new model,” he added. “So the bargaining environment is harder right now the actual fiscal reality, I think, hits a lot more in years three and four.”

Reykdal is already pushing the Legislature for a levy fix this next session.

In the meantime, the disparity continues with teacher contracts with districts like Edmonds and Bellevue giving teachers double digit pay raises, while Seattle warns it may need to cut staff. More than 200 districts across the state will try to reach agreements over the next couple of weeks though some are clearly far apart. Kent teachers already authorized a strike, and Mukilteo teachers are expected to decide Wednesday whether hundreds of teachers rally for higher pay.

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Superintendent asks for patience amid potential teacher strikes, and districts figure out funding