Seattle's unionized teachers, paraprofessionals, and office staff voted to ratify a contract with the school district on Sunday night, ending a five-day strike that was suspended after bargaining teams reached a tentative agreement last week. The educators' fight for legal school funding, however, is far from over.
Unlike the thunderous, unanimous "AYE!" vote to go on strike, the vote to ratify the agreement was more divided. Seventeen percent of certified teaching staff voted against accepting the agreement, while 87 percent of the paraprofessionals and 96 percent of office professionals voted to accept it. Much of the debate came down to deciding whether to seize on the moment to ask more for Seattle's kids, Seattle Education Association (SEA) vice president and bargaining chair Phyllis Campano said.
Some of the agreement's biggest wins primarily benefit the students. Because of the union's fight, the deal now guarantees a minimum of 30 minutes of recess per day for all elementary school students, as well as equity committees to address disproportionate discipline and the opportunity gap in 30 schools. That's a significant leap from the six equity team pilots the district had last offered before the strike. Additionally, now the union and the district will form a joint committee to analyze the burden of standardized testing on Seattle's kids.
The educators and support staff did make some strong gains for their lot, too. For the first time ever, school psychologists, speech language therapists, physical therapists, and other support staff won hard caps on their caseloads. (The agreement states that now there will be one school psychologist per 1,050 students, for example.) This means that the district expects to hire 23 additional staffers over the next two years as enrollment grows, according to SEA. Teachers also successfully lobbied to get rid of an evaluation tool based on state standardized testing scores.
But compensation remained one of the most debated items before the vote. The contract stipulates raises of three percent, two percent, and 4.5 percent for the three years of the contract, respectively. A three percent cost of living adjustment (COLA) from the state will be tacked on the first year, and an additional 1.8 percent adjustment the second. The total raise is just half a percentage point higher than the school district's last public offer before the tentative agreement.
Carrie Alefaio, a counseling secretary at Franklin High School, said that the new contract includes the biggest raise she's seen in her 25 years of working in the district. "I am so happy," she said. "I know that there's a lot that needs to be improved, but I think this is a good start."
Still, even if the agreement looks like a 9.5 percent raise overall, it's important to remember that both the district raises and the COLA are only applied to 75 percent of teachers' salaries—the base pay funded by the state.
"It's a hard decision to make," one English Language Learner (ELL) teacher at Van Esselt Elementary said, regarding the vote to ratify the agreement. She did not want to be identified by name, but disclosed that she had to move in with her parents because she couldn't afford rent in the city. The ELL teacher voted "yes" on the agreement, but wondered if the union should have held out for more. Then again, she also worried about burdening parents who have to rely on food stamps to feed their kids and juggle schedules while waiting for a strike to end.
"We need more funding," she said. "The legislature needs to be held accountable and actually fully fund public education so that we have the money to pay teachers, [office professionals], and paraprofessionals so we can afford to live in the city that we teach in."
Considering the new raises in the context of average teacher salaries dating back to 2010, teachers have lost $8,728 in average salary over the last five years, according to John Burbank, executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, a left-leaning Seattle think tank. (Burbank says that the loss of average salary could be attributed to older, more highly-paid teachers leaving the system and being replaced with cheaper, newer teachers. But before this year's COLA from the state, teachers had gone six years without any COLA adjustments at all.)
Even the highest raises in the third year still don't add up to what teachers collectively lost in the aftermath of the recession. Here's a chart from Burbank showing what that looks like:
By the end of 2014, the cost of living in the Seattle area had also increased by nearly nine percent since 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Price Index. This year, it's grown even more. As of August, the cost of living had increased 10.5 percent from August of 2010.
Every educator I spoke to after the vote identified the state's unconstitutional underfunding of public schools as the underlying and ongoing problem.
"The reason there's not enough money is the state for sure," Thornton Creek Elementary reading specialist Cindy Deshler said. "And I'm really hoping that all the momentum that's been built during the strike is going to carry the parents and the teachers together forward at the statewide level to get education funded properly. lt really feels like there's momentum. I felt such incredible support from the families."
Now union leadership is setting its sights on Olympia.
"I want to stress to both the public and the legislature that the vast majority of those voting 'no' were not voting no against the groundbreaking gains," SEA president Jonathan Knapp said in a press conference following the vote. "They were voting 'no' against legislative inaction on school funding. So let me be clear, every day that the political extremists in the legislature block the constitutional mandate to amply fund public education, they are doing actual developmental harms to children."