Just after 7:30 p.m. this evening, a packed Benaroya Hall full of Seattle's teachers unanimously shouted, "AYE!!!" on a motion to strike. There were no dissenting "nays." The Seattle teachers union will strike on the first day of school, September 9, if no tentative agreement is reached with Seattle Public Schools.
The vote at Benaroya Hall came after months of failed negotiations with the school district. If the union and the school district don't cut a deal by the start of school, the Seattle Education Association (SEA)—representing 5,000 teachers, paraprofessionals, and administrative workers—will strike for the first time in 30 years, according to Phyllis Campano, vice president of the union and chair of the SEA bargaining team.
"This is my fourth time bargaining," Campano said. "And I have never seen us so far apart so late in the game."
The last SEA contract expired August 31. Some of the major issues at the bargaining table came down to pay, equity, recess, and special education caseloads.
First-year teachers make $44,000 a year; after 15 years of teaching and a PhD, they can then earn up to $85,000. But the state hasn't raised its cost of living adjustments for teachers in six years, and Seattle's affordability crisis has only worsened over the duration of the last two-year contract. The union proposed six percent raises each year for three years for all members, but according to a fact-sheet passed out by SEA, the district has countered with just a two percent raise the first year, followed by 3.2 percent raise the subsequent year, and then a three percent raise the third.
Equity was another major sticking point. To combat persistent achievement gaps along racial and social lines—as well as disproportionate disciplining—the union proposed creating "equity teams" to study the issue and come up with solutions at 30 schools. The district offered equity pilots at just six schools, and only starting in the second year of the contract.
Campano pointed to diminishing recess time as a problem of equity, too. Teachers say that shorter recesses often mean kids have to choose between play and eating, and the decrease in unstructured playtime can affects kids' ability to learn in the classroom.
"There's so much emphasis on over-testing our kids they're dwindling our recess time," Campano said. "We find that our schools that are most in poverty only have 15 to 20 minutes of recess, and the ones that are not—that don't have as much free and reduced lunch—have up to 45 minutes."
Gwendolin Jimerson, a paraprofessional in the Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School's Head Start program and the mother of a senior in the district, says that the School Board hasn't been listening to what teachers are telling them about students' needs.
"Go and speak to an English-language learner and see the obstacles that they face, and try to understand what it is they're supposed to do to meet these [standardized] assessments that are outrageous and don't count for anything," she said.
Jimerson, who's been working in the district for 12 years, says that she's also seen her instructional assistant and teacher's aide counterparts work two to three jobs or take their children off their medical plans just to get by.
"I think people are tired of being tired, tired of being disrespected," she said.
Elated educators and school workers streamed out of the hall after the vote. SEA estimates more than 2,100 members attended the meeting. "It's many years of built-up frustration," Cindy Jatul, a Roosevelt High School science teacher, said.
"And more time testing our kids on tests that are not valid," Tracy Landboe, another Roosevelt High School teacher, added. "And we're science teachers. We know when things are valid and not valid."
"We want to teach students; we don't want to strike," Landboe said. "But there comes a point in time when you have to stand up for what's right."
Kshama Sawant supporters circulated a letter of solidarity before the vote. "If the district leaves SEA members no alternative but to strike, they will have the support of students, parents, and the community," Sawant's letter read. "They have stood up for young people tirelessly, and we will stand with them."
Kids, hold onto your summer reading SparkNotes.
Update: A press release from Seattle Public Schools says that a mediator will meet with both sides on Friday.
"Our goal is a contract which honors, respects and pays our educators and provides more instructional time for all students, including those children who desperately need more time with outstanding teachers in order to succeed," Superintendent Larry Nyland said in a statement, referring to the school district's request that teachers work longer school days starting in 2017.
The release from SPS continued:
Seattle remains behind other districts statewide in the amount of daily instructional time for students, approximately six hours and ten minutes. SPS has proposed a 13% salary increase over three years for SEA members, including a state Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA). Since 2007, the district has increased salaries for teachers by 23%, exceeding the Department of Labor’s Consumer Price Index (CPI) of 19% over the same time period.
This post has been updated.