The Pasco School Board approved a budget for the 2015-16 school year Tuesday with a possible strike vote looming.
The Pasco Association of Educators, which represents more than 1,050 teachers, could vote on Pasco’s first teacher strike since 1978 at Wednesday’s membership meeting.
The union and school district remain far apart in negotiations after discussions with a state mediator last week.
Several speakers at the school board meeting opposed $15 million in the budget designated for a preschool center to serve 900 children from low-income families, though it was clarified that the district would be responsible for only half of that. The district plans to lobby to get the remaining $7.5 million from the state.
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Parent Erin Hall Lewis questioned why the district wanted the facility when a 2011 school bond with a preschool center failed with voters, only to pass in 2013 when the preschool was removed. Others wondered why the district would fund the preschool facility when it already has Head Start.
“It’s kind of difficult to budget for something you don’t know if you will have the money for, and kind of leaving us in limbo,” Hall Lewis said.
Matthew Polk, lead negotiator for the Pasco teachers union in its labor talks with the district, told board members they have tolerated “complete mismanagement” of the schools.
“Every time you speak, I have observed that not one of you has looked to solve the problems by first examining educational outcomes — instead you incessantly search for the cheapest solution, and then check to see if the educational outcomes might be acceptable,” said Polk, a Pasco High School music teacher. “But I want to remind you that you get what you pay for.”
Polk left soon after to attend a union budget forum at a west Pasco church. The meeting featured a presentation by Washington Education Association financial analyst Marie Canas.
Canas told the audience of 140 people that the district has more flexibility in spending than it lets on and a larger reserve than most districts its size, with an ending fund balance more than twice the statewide average and 5 percent larger than the Kennewick or Richland school districts.
Canas also said that $2.9 million more would have been spent in the classroom if Pasco spent the same percentage of its money on instruction as Kennewick does.
The district has agreed to give teachers additional supplemental days and has increased planning time at the elementary level to just under four hours per week, it said. But the union continues to seek an 11.2-percent pay increase in addition to the 3 percent cost of living raise approved by the state.
The district is now offering a total package for the 2015-16 school year $3.3 million higher than the previous year, while the union wants $14.9 million more, according to the district.
More meetings with the state mediator are scheduled Aug. 19-21.
Union officials say they want to have the vote on a strike early to both send a message to the district that teachers are serious, while giving administrators time to change their position before school starts Sept. 1. But the district says a strike is illegal because of a “no strike” clause in the current contract, while carries over until a new one is in place.
The current labor contract is set to expire Aug. 31.
A lack of curriculum in Pasco schools has been another issue in the labor negotiations. But board President Ryan Brault said Tuesday that the board requested $1.1 million in the new budget be placed toward future instructional material, with some additional money already in the budget for more curriculum.
Board member Amy Phillips told the audience at the board meeting that she is limited to what she can say about union negotiations, but believes it will come to a positive conclusion for everyone.
“It’s not an instantaneous process, so I hope you are patient with that process,” she said.