Kennewick teachers say neighboring districts pay more money. Here’s their plan to get raises

Kennewick Education Association bargaining rally

James Gow, Washington Education Association-Southeast representative, tells about the contract negotiations being held between the Kennewick Education Association and the Kennewick School District.
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James Gow, Washington Education Association-Southeast representative, tells about the contract negotiations being held between the Kennewick Education Association and the Kennewick School District.

Chris Kenoyer joined about 75 of her fellow teachers outside the Kennewick School District’s administration building Wednesday.

The Southridge High School English teacher and union representative has seen firsthand what the higher pay in neighboring school districts means for teachers.

“If you see across the river that you can make $5,000 more per year, why would you stay?” she said, referring to Richland and Pasco school district salaries.

Along with changes related to student discipline and leave, the Kennewick Education Association and Kennewick district administrators are trying to bridge a gap on pay as they enter a full week of negotiations.

For union members, the issue is simple. Pasco pays starting teachers at least $3,000 more than Kennewick, and the gap between Kennewick and Richland for beginning educators is $5,000.

When the Legislature set money aside for educators as part of a solution to end a years-long legal battle over school funding, all three school districts opened negotiations about wages. While Richland and Pasco educators didn’t have a contract at the time, Kennewick teachers did.

Kennewick teachers did open up negotiations last year; the closed contract meant they stopped short of the increases Richland and Pasco saw, union leaders said.

Kennewick’s teachers settled on the new agreement, knowing that they would negotiate again this year.

“If you look at the existing salary schedules (of Richland and Pasco) they are far outpacing Kennewick School District in salaries,” said Jim Gow, the Washington Education Association’s representative for the southeast region.

KEA bargaining rally
Members of the Kennewick Education Association bargaining team make their way through a group of teachers and supporters gathered for a rally Wednesday in the parking lot of the Kennewick School District administrative building on West Fourth Avenue. Watch a video at: Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

District leaders want to match cost of living increases that the neighboring school districts are providing, but their proposal still leaves a gap between them and their neighbors, he said. The union’s proposal would put Kennewick teachers ahead of their neighbors.

Several educators have pointed out that administrators in Kennewick make more than the neighboring districts.

“We don’t believe our teachers are worth less then theirs, and we also don’t believe that gives this district the ability to attract and retain new staff and teachers in a competitive way, which really is detrimental to the students of this community,” he said.

Not a fair comparison

Administrators see the issue differently. They say the Kennewick Education Association is not making a fair comparison. For the first time, all of the negotiating documents are available to the public, including the response to the association’s proposal.

Their response highlights ways that Kennewick schools are different than neighboring districts.

Richland received additional state funding for teacher salaries through “regionalization.” The money supported school districts with higher costs of living, and Kennewick and Pasco didn’t get any.

“In order to fairly compare districts — apple to apple — and the salaries that they provide for employees under this new system, districts must be compared to other districts with the same regionalization factor,” district leaders wrote.

They called comparing Richland to Kennewick salaries “inherently unfair.”

The district also noted that the state moved from a sliding scale to fund salaries to a flat amount. That change favored school districts with less-educated and -experienced teachers, such as Pasco. District officials said the average Kennewick teacher makes $74,126, about $8,910 more than the compensation that comes from the state.

“Because their staff is substantially less experienced and has fewer degrees and credits, their basic costs are lower, enabling them to offer high salaries with the same allocation,” district leaders wrote.

Instead, the district developed its own list that includes Selah, Centralia, Shelton, Longview, Yakima and Rochester school districts. The beginning salary for teachers in those districts runs from a low of $43,000 in Yakima to a high of $50,481 in Centralia.

The school district provided a frequently asked questions section in the new collective bargaining section of its website

Still negotiating

Kennewick teachers and the administration are also trying to hash out some other issues, including changes in family leave and new state regulations on disciplining students in the classroom.

“We made some progress on many of the items, so that’s positive,” Gow said. “We’ve got a lot of items where we’ve been back and forth a couple of times that we’re working through.”

Administrators did not share their opinions on how the negotiations were going.

Bargaining will resume on Friday.

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.