Many Kennewick teachers are now making more than region’s $63,000 annual median wage

Kennewick teachers officially have a new contract, finally bringing to a close months of dispute that ended in four days of canceled classes.

Details about the new two-year contract have not been released to the public because district officials are still fixing some of the final details. School directors signed off on the agreement during Wednesday’s board meeting.

Teachers returned to work Tuesday after nearly all of them voted in favor of the contract that gave them between 6.9 percent and 7.7 percent raises. The two-year agreement also included concessions about insurance, student discipline and classroom attendance caps.

They reached the agreement after a three-day strike and more than a week of mediated talks between administrators and the union.

Talks started in May to come up with the contract. At the time, teachers accepted making less than teachers in Pasco and Richland as they finished the final year of a three-year contract.

When they returned to the negotiating table in May, they wanted parity with their neighbors.

After trading proposals back and forth, first in June and then in August, a group of teachers approved a strike if a tentative agreement wasn’t in place by Aug. 26. When the two sides failed to reach an agreement, teachers went on strike.

Strike Westgate teachers
Striking Kennewick teachers and their supporters carry picket signs on West Fourth Avenue near the Westgate Elementary School. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Now, with the Kennewick Education Association’s contract settled, the district can begin working on contracts with the administrators and for coaches.

Long history of making less

Stagnating teacher wages trace back to the Great Recession of the early 2000s. The economic downturn that started in 2008 and lasted into the early years of the next decade led to cuts in state salary funding. In some cases, districts turned to local property taxes to help cover that shortfall.

Those cuts resulted in beginning teachers in Washington making an average annual salary of $47,000 across the state, and kept salaries on the low end of the spectrum compared to the rest of the country, said Margaret Plecki, a professor emerita with the University of Washington’s College of Education.

Plecki has spent her career studying the economics of education, and she said teacher salaries in the state have traditionally been in the middle of the pack compared with other states.

The funding struggles put beginning teachers at well below the median household income of $54,000 a year for Benton and Franklin counties.

Around the same time, the state was in the throes of budget deficits, and the McCleary and Venema families sued the state claiming it wasn’t meeting its obligation to fund education. The state Supreme Court sided with the families, kicking off years of debate as state legislators tried to come up with an adequate funding solution.

Injection of state money

As part of the plan to increase school funding, the state put $2 billion into teacher salaries, which was a huge win for teachers, Plecki said.

Votes are counted for the two-year contract offer to teachers from the Kennewick School District. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

The next year, after the money was injected into the system, the state saw 14 teacher strikes, a 40-year high. Many of those strikes came about as teachers across the state started negotiating for pay increases.

While Plecki hasn’t seen any research tying the spike in strikes to the increase in funding, she wasn’t surprised, she said. Funding uncertainty and economic instability often creates problems.

In line with local wages

While some people criticized teachers on social media for being paid too much, the latest raise does not put teachers far out of line with what many in the Tri-Cities earn.

The latest data from Benton Franklin Trends puts the median wage for the region at $63,000. Median income puts income distribution into two equal groups, with half having income above that amount and half below.

While a large number of teachers are at the top end of the pay scale, the second-largest group of teachers are in the first five years of their career. So, even though a 2018 increase pushed the top teachers above the median wage, it left many below it.

The latest raise pushes many of those same teachers at the beginning of their career near or slightly over the median wage.

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.