In an effort to meet demands for transparency in union negotiations for the district, Superintendent Art Jarvis yesterday sent this open letter to the community outlining the hot-topics and delays in labor talks between the District and the Washington Education Association of Tacoma. An agreement must be made by Aug. 26 in order for school to start on time Sept. 1.
I am writing to provide the latest update on labor negotiations between the Tacoma School District and Washington Education Association of Tacoma, which represents our teachers. Having spent 47 years in education, I can say with certainty that we have some of the best teachers in Washington right here in Tacoma. And we want to end this process with the best possible contract that shows our teachers how much we value their important work educating our students.
On Monday, August 8, the District requested the assistance of a state mediator from the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) to help us work through the remaining contract issues. Even under the best of circumstances, difficult issues create challenging, deliberate and slow bargaining, and that has held true in the present case. Beyond that, however, the actions of WEA-Tacoma have set the stage for us to request professional, mediated assistance. Although the District was available to negotiate, TEA was available for only four days in July to negotiate on teacher issues, which, paired with the union setting unilateral deadlines and their effort to seek strike authorization prior to any negotiations, generated our concern.
In the midst of these challenges, The News Tribune and a local advocacy group called Vibrant Schools Tacoma have called for “transparency” and demanded that the District and WEA-Tacoma provide regular public updates on bargaining sessions.
That approach to labor negotiations has never occurred in the Tacoma School District. Only a very few districts across the state have chosen to adopt this ultra-transparent approach during their current negotiations. Transparency doesn’t guarantee a smoother negotiation – one district that’s tried it also has called for help from a state mediator. While we believe in transparency in many respects, in the area of labor contract negotiations we understand that it can be detrimental to the efforts of union and management to engage in open, free-form discussions on issues that are important to employees. We have been reluctant also to risk the important, cooperative relationship that has built up between the District and our teachers over the years. By keeping the bargaining at the bargaining table for now, we believe we have the best chance to achieve an appropriate agreement.
Along the way, WEA-Tacoma has publicly criticized the District for bringing in Washington Employers, a non-profit organization that provides labor relations services, to help us with these negotiations. As School Board President Kurt Miller stated when we announced this approach in early May, we knew this year’s negotiations – given the Legislature’s cuts, trends in education and the world’s economic turmoil – would be the most challenging in decades and would demand lengthy bargaining. Our goal here was to remove the emotion and personalities from negotiations, preserve the district’s long-term relationships with the teachers’ union and focus on the critical issues. An additional fact is also important: The District had eliminated the position dedicated to legislative liaison and labor negotiations. Savings from that position have already totaled $430,000. We were aware that we did not have the staff to conduct protracted, difficult bargaining without employing staff on a permanent basis or engaging assistance during bargaining.
We have made progress. As of last Friday, August 12, the District and WEA-Tacoma had resolved all contract issues for Office Professional and Technical employees with the exception of economic issues. WEA-Tacoma indicated that they believed that it was in the best interest of their members to have the discussion on economic issues for education support staff at the time those discussions are held for certificated staff (teachers). We believe that, together, the District and WEA-Tacoma can make the same type of progress in the negotiations for teachers.
On Monday, August 15, our District team came to the table with a complete proposal on all outstanding issues and ready to bargain on the salary schedule. However, WEA-Tacoma did not come Monday with a complete package of proposals and informed us they did not want to bargain on the salary schedule until they could call in assistance from a state WEA analyst. So, with the union’s self-imposed deadline of August 26 fast approaching, we are concerned that the union has not yet shared all of their proposals with the District team.
There still are significant and challenging issues left unresolved, ones that will affect student achievement and teaching conditions in the classroom. Despite more than 20 full-day negotiating sessions so far, we believe strongly that a neutral, third-party state mediator can best help us resolve the difficult issues in time to start school September 1 as planned.
Major issues on which we are seeking mediation include:
As a result of the most recent state legislative session the Legislature cut more than $2 billion from K-12 education statewide. The state budget directed a loss in funding for teachers’ salaries (1.9 percent) and necessitated local bargaining in school districts to enable the reductions. Facing this challenge involves difficult bargaining.
High-quality teaching represents one of the most important factors in student learning. Additionally, Washington State law, SB 6696, requires us, and all districts, to have a new teacher evaluation system in place by 2013.That’s why the president of the teachers’ union and I co-hosted a listening tour to hear from teachers, parents, students and community members about how student achievement might be included in the teacher evaluation process. Incorporating this into our new labor contract provides an immense challenge to the standard bargaining process.
During the last school year, in a series of community meetings set up to discuss the impacts on us from funding cuts by the Legislature, we proposed the cost-saving measure of increasing class sizes. We have built the $2 million annual savings into our budget planning and realize the District and WEA-Tacoma must come to agreement for this to happen.
In addition to these high-profile issues, we also must address how to best ensure that high quality teaching continues to occur in the Tacoma School District. This includes examining criteria, including seniority, for attracting and retaining high quality teachers.
We feel the urgency to get these issues resolved so we can start school on time. Our District bargaining team continues to stand ready to meet at any time, and for as many hours as necessary to resolve the remaining issues.
I can confidently tell you that the District and District teachers have a strong commitment to ensuring Tacoma remains an outstanding school district. We know that Tacoma is a District in which all students can meet high standards of achievement, demonstrate critical thinking skills, and be socially responsible, contributing members of their community.