Hundreds of teachers packed the Battle Ground High School auditorium Wednesday night. It was the last scheduled all-member union meeting before school starts next week. It was also the last chance for members to vote on a strike.
One by one, members clad in bright red union shirts submitted paper votes. After a summer of bargaining with the district for higher pay, the union had still not received a proposal it considered acceptable. And with less than a week before the first day of school, the union was ready to take a bolder stance: a vote to strike.
An hour later, the tallied votes were nearly unanimous.
“Ninety-eight point four percent,” Battle Ground Education Association President Linda Peterson announced to roaring applause.
“Now, my friends, the work begins,” she added.
Why The Push For Higher Wages Now?
The scene in Battle Ground is one that’s playing out this summer in all 295 districts across Washington. In response to the McCleary decision, a landmark Supreme Court case that determined Washington was failing to fully fund basic education, each district is now responsible for negotiating new teacher salary schedules.
Part of the McCleary fix includes more funding from the state, instead of through local levy dollars. In 2017, the Washington Legislature approved $7.3 billion allocated to schools over a four-year period. And earlier this year, state lawmakers passed nearly $1 billion, specifically earmarked for teacher and school staff salaries.
The Washington Education Association is urging local chapters to push for big raises, recommending at least a 15 percent increase in salary. Some districts, including Woodland, the only district in Clark County to approve a new contract, are approving double-digit percent hikes.
But, in most of the area, negotiations have been tense. Battle Ground and five other unions in the county have approved a work stoppage if the district does not give teachers higher wages. Most recently, Evergreen, Washougal and Hockinson school teachers authorized a strike. Before that, Vancouver and Ridgefield union members also approved a strike on the first day of school.
History In The Making
“This really is a historic situation,” said Bill Beville, president of Evergreen Education Association.
With more than 26,000 students, Evergreen is the largest district in Clark County and the sixth largest in the state. On Thursday, by a vote of 95.9 percent, the teachers union became the latest to approve a strike starting Tuesday, Aug. 28, the first scheduled day of school.
“The district’s got to hear this message, that our members are not going to accept less,” said Beville. “And if they want teachers back in schools, they’ve got to come to the table and look at competitive, professional wages so we can best serve the students of Evergreen.”
Beville said the district only recently started to negotiate and bring proposals to the bargaining table, he thinks in part because of pressure from his union members. But with the start of school looming, he worries that they’re running out of time.
“If this was June or July, we’d be in a great place,” said Beville. “But school starts next week. I just don’t know if there’s enough time to get to a decision that both sides can agree to.”
The most recent offer from Evergreen Public Schools is an 8.3 percent increase in compensation, bumping the range for annual teacher salaries to $50,687 to $96,045. The teachers union, however, has proposed a different pay range, that would start at $57,288 and go up to $97,764 for the most experienced teachers.
After the strike vote, Evergreen Public Schools officials expressed disappointment in the union’s decision to call a potential strike and pointed out that the union is in the final year of a three-year contract that had already been negotiated in 2016.
“We are passing through all the state and court-mandated funding allocated for teacher salaries, plus adding a higher percentage out of our remaining local levy funds than other agreements reached across the state," district officials wrote in an emailed statement.
The union isn’t creating a picket line until Tuesday, but that didn’t stop many from preparing for a strike. After the vote, teachers streamed out of the Evergreen High School auditorium and started stapling signs that read “On Strike!”
Among them was Terri Karkau, who teaches medical sciences at Mountain View High School.
“The Legislature earmarked this money for teacher salaries,” said Karkau, referring the latest installment of the McCleary fix. “And that’s where it needs to go.”
New Funding Might Not Be Enough
Despite new funding from the state, many districts in Southwest Washington say it’s not enough to offset the loss of local levy funds.
“We are trying to get folks to have a much better wage, but there is a place where the district must maintain its solvency,” said Mary Templeton, superintendent of the Washougal School District, who, despite a union strike vote, is still optimistic about reaching an agreement.
“But if you can’t pay your bills, you can’t pay your teachers, and you can’t run a school,” she added.
At Hockinson School District, about $2.8 million was sent down from the state. But Sarah Coomber, the district’s communications manager, said the district is losing millions because of new regulations that cap levies. Coomber says voters approved a $5 million levy for 2019, but will now only be able to collect $2 million of that, a loss of more than 58 percent.
“That creates a huge challenge,” said Coomber. “What we agree to needs to be affordable and sustainable.”
Hockinson school teachers approved a strike starting on the first day of school, Wednesday, Aug. 29, if a tentative agreement isn't reached by then. The vote came after union leaders said they could not recommend the district’s latest proposal to raise salaries by an average of 8 percent. The Hockinson Education Association’s proposal asks for a 24.6 percent salary increase, and requests for additional paraeducators and smaller class sizes.
“We don’t take a strike vote lightly,” said union co-president Megan Miles. “But teachers work hard and ready to be valued.”
Increasing Tension Surrounding Negotiations
Rick Wilson, the executive director of the Vancouver Education Association, said the negotiations have created a tense relationship between the union and the school district.
“There’s a lot of anger directed at the district right now, an awful lot of frustration,” said Wilson.
The district’s most recent offer raises the average total compensation by 14.9 percent over two years, and 17.2 percent over three years. By the school year 2020-21, the most experienced teachers would be making just under $100,000 a year. But the union shot back that the offer also came with additional work days for teachers and an increase in classroom sizes.
“We’d like to be rewarded for the work we’re doing, not add more work to it,” said Wilson.
With a possible strike looming, districts have been notifying families with letters to parents and daily updates on school websites.
“We want our 24,000 students to start school on time and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that happens,” said VPS communications director Pat Nuzzo.
Nuzzo said all of the back to school activities are still on schedule, but the district is prepared to notify parents by Aug. 27 if it looks like a strike will be called on Aug. 29, the first day of school.
“We have already given parents a head’s up that that could happen,” Nuzzo added.
No End In Sight
Teachers are also preparing for the worst. Lisa Packard teaches special education at Fir Grove in the Vancouver Public Schools district. She supports the union’s decision to strike and plans to join the picket line if needed. But she admits, the past few weeks have been unsettling.
“I’m constantly checking my email, the website,” said Packard. “I’m anxious because I don’t know what day we’re starting and when all of this will be resolved.”
Packard is also a mother to two girls in the Vancouver school district, one is on the waiting list for Salmon Creek Elementary and the other will start her senior year at Skyview High School.
“It’s been a bit of a civics lesson,” she said, adding that her older daughter has especially taken an interest.
“She texts me now, asking for updates on negotiations,” Packard added.
When asked what her kids would do if school was delayed because of a strike, she replied that “they’d probably come with me to hold picket signs.”