The Pasco School District and its teachers union will head into state mediation next week. Teachers could vote on a strike Aug. 12 if progress isn’t made.
The sides are still far apart as they negotiate Aug. 4 and 5 with a representative from the Public Employment Relations Commission at the Red Lion Hotel in Pasco.
The district is offering an overall increase of $2.3 million for the next year, while the union is asking for $15 million.
Dale Folkerts, a spokesman for the Washington Education Association, compares the situation to one that led to a 2009 teacher strike in Kent that lasted more than two weeks at the beginning of the school year.
“When Kent went on strike, the issue was largely that the administration did not need to listen to its teachers or its parents,” he said. “There seems to be strong parallels here in Pasco, where issues that impact teachers and students are routinely ignored, and, ultimately, it’s our students who suffer because of it.”
District officials question the legality of a teacher strike, even though it would start after the contract with the Pasco Association of Educators expires Aug. 31. Spokeswoman Leslee Caul said the current contract has a “no strike” clause.
“Courts across the state have said it’s not permitted if there is a no strike clause in the contract,” she said. “Absent a new contract, the current contract stays in place.”
Is it about the money?
The union, which represents more than 1,000 teachers, seeks an additional $15 million in spending, with an 11.2-percent pay increase for all teachers taking up $7.7 million of that.
The district is countering with a $2.3 million increase during the next year, on top of $11.7 million already coming from the state for a 3 percent pay raise, increased benefits and other expenses.
Union officials say money isn’t their primary concern, even though teachers haven’t received a raise in six years. They want to address matters brought up by teachers in discussions in the spring.
Teachers are “voluntold” to participate in work activities outside the school day, including Saturday school, and are not paid for extra hours, according to a union report.
They are required to use their planning time to fill in as substitute teachers, so they don’t have time to prepare lessons. They say technology varies between campuses, and there’s a lack of support from administrators.
Teachers also dislike the district’s curriculum, or lack of a districtwide one, the union said. Teachers say they work 80-hour weeks and have little time for their families. They say there is also a textbook shortage and they have to buy their own supplies.
Bilingual teachers work even longer hours, as they have to translate materials from English to teach in Spanish, the union said.
“We have teachers who are at the building at 8 o’clock at night,” said Greg Olson, president of the Pasco Association of Educators. “We have teachers who are dreading Sundays because they are preparing for the next day at school instead of spending it with their families.”
But the union demands don’t concur with their statements, Caul said. Of their $15 million in requests, the district said $12.5 million would go toward pay and benefit increases, including salary, extra planning and training time, and increasing the insurance pool.
The union is asking for only $1.01 million in additional curriculum, consisting of an additional $1,000 for resources per elementary teacher and $875 per secondary teacher. It is also asking for an additional $1.5 million for paraeducator support.
The union would like to see the school district tap into its reserve fund to help pay teachers.
“The feeling of a lot of the community is the kids are getting robbed,” said Matthew Polk, a Pasco High music teacher and district parent who is the union’s lead negotiator. “If they have money that’s meant for education, and they’re not spending it, the kids are missing out.”
Olson points to his own children, who he says graduated from high school without having the money spent on them.
“What are we saving it for?” he said.
Howard Roberts, the district’s executive director of fiscal services, said the fund was at $37.5 million, but the school board reduced it in May when it voted to set aside $7.5 million for a future pre-kindergarten center. The district considers the facility necessary because kids are coming into kindergarten unprepared.
“The board is interested in proceeding with that project, and even if they don’t get state money (this year), they want the district piece ready to go,” he said.
Another portion of the reserve fund has been awarded to the district through grants and has to be spent on certain projects, leaving it with a reserve of around $22 million, Roberts said.
Some of that is allocated to be spent in the proposed 2015-16 budget, on projects like new school startup, and bus and computer replacement.
The district projects the general fund reserve to be down to $16 million by the end of the upcoming fiscal year.
The district has spent less than projected, leaving it with reserves, in recent years, but Roberts said it budgets conservatively.
“One of the assumptions we make is that we are going to spend all of our budgeted expenditures,” he said.
The district requested the mediation because it met eight times with the union and made little progress. Caul said the district raised its proposal to $2.3 million from $2 million, but the union hasn’t budged.
Polk will be joined in the negotiations on the union side by an elementary and a middle school teacher, as well as a Washington Education Association staff member who specializes in bargaining. Sarah Thornton, assistant superintendent for operations and legal affairs, is the lead negotiator for the district.
Teachers are working to send a message at the mediation meeting, making signs saying “Fair Contract Now!” Olson said they plan to march outside the Red Lion. The district will have to change for the mediation to be successful, said the WEA’s Folkerts.
“The district has to be willing to say, ‘We recognize there are problems here that have fostered for years, and we are willing to step up to the plate and deal with them,’ ” he said. “Because it’s important to keep getting teachers in Pasco and give students the skills, curriculum and class sizes that they need.”
Caul said she is hopeful the mediation will help lead to a resolution.
“We have a long history of coming to agreements and have incredible support here in Pasco,” she said. “We are very hopeful that mediation can bring both groups together to reach an agreement.”
The union is considering setting a strike date nearly three weeks before the contract ends to send the district a message that it is serious, but also to give it time to work to an agreement by the time school starts Sept. 1, officials said.
“Everything we’re about is trying to avoid a strike, but the school district can’t ignore the teacher’s concerns,” Olson said. “We’re hoping the district will understand there really is an issue here they have to pay attention to.”