Tacoma teachers vote no on strike

// Next key vote to come Sept. 12

After Tacoma Weekly went to press Wednesday, Tacoma teachers voted not to strike – yet.

In last night’s vote, 77.2 percent of the teachers’ union membership voted to strike, which fell short of the 80 percent legally needed for approval. While some members of the teacher’s union were absent for the vote, of those who were there – 1,583 out of the approximately 2,100 members – only 56 voted against a walkout, which means that 90 percent of the teachers present supported a strike.

On the district’s side, also yesterday Tacoma Public Schools made significant modifications to its contract offerings, which include keeping class sizes unchanged, retaining a seniority-based layoff system and maintaining the current contract’s salary schedule.

Negotiations will continue for about the next two weeks. The union plans to meet again Sept. 12 to vote either to ratify a contract with the district or go out on strike.

Despite that key issues remain unresolved, teachers started school on time today without a contract, as it expired at midnight last night.

The following is the complete text of a letter the district sent out yesterday.

District makes significant modifications to proposals in labor negotiations with teachers' union in hopes of reaching settlement in time to start school Thursday

Tacoma Public Schools made major changes to its proposals at the bargaining table with teachers this morning that will keep class sizes unchanged and continue to base layoff decisions on the current system that relies on seniority while retaining flexibility in the assignment and reassignment of teachers.

The district made the significant modifications – despite the worsening economy and loss of state revenue to keep class sizes low – in hopes of reaching a collective bargaining agreement with teachers and avoid a teachers’ strike that would have devastating effects on our community, Superintendent Art Jarvis announced this morning.

Despite the district’s new proposal, the two sides still do not have a tentative collective bargaining agreement and continue to negotiate today. The Tacoma Education Association (TEA) will meet with its members at 4:30 this afternoon to determine a course of action.

“We simply cannot afford a strike right now,” Jarvis said. “No one wins in a strike; everybody loses – especially our students and their families. We hope our teachers can see for themselves how much I, our school board and our district value their contributions in the classroom on behalf of the students,” he said.

While the district and TEA have agreed to approximately 80 provisions in the collective bargaining agreement, they still have not agreed on three main issues: class sizes, teachers’ pay and whether seniority alone should determine which teachers get open jobs.

Here’s a summary of the differences of opinion on each issue:

CLASS SIZE

District position: Keep class size limits the same as in the previous collective bargaining agreement, which means a range from a maximum of 24 in kindergarten to a maximum of 30 in high school with some exceptions.

TEA position: Reduce class size limits by one student at all grade levels.

Explanation: The state Legislature reduced sources of funding for school district’s to hire more teachers that would keep class sizes low. Under the district’s proposal, Tacoma Public Schools will absorb the cost – approximately $1.8 million a year.

“The district will maintain the present class size as best as possible in the short term,” Jarvis said, “but we simply can’t do that over the long term. Eventually, we need some assistance from the union to deal with this issue and with the additional cuts that will come our way in the next year from the Legislature.”

TEACHERS’ PAY

District position: Maintain the current salary schedule for teachers – with no cut in base salary. Teachers will continue to work the same number of days they did under the previous collective bargaining agreement. To make up for the 1.9 percent legislative cut, teachers would give up an opportunity to earn two days of extra pay for professional development and give up one day of paid, personal leave.

TEA position: Maintain the current salary schedule for teachers – with no cut in pay. But teachers will reduce their work year by the equivalent of two fewer days by taking four early-release days on currently scheduled full school days. This would mean students would receive the equivalent of two fewer days of classroom instruction.

Explanation: The district will absorb the 1.9 percent cut the state Legislature made in the state’s contribution to teachers’ pay. For the individual teacher in Tacoma, a cut would have equaled a 1.35 percent pay reduction. The difference in the two proposals is that the TEA wants to reduce instructional time in the classroom for students to give its members time off for the same amount of money.

“The Legislature knew when they passed the cuts to education and teachers’ salaries that districts would have to the bear the brunt of the labor strife to deal with it,” Jarvis said. “We’re simply not in a position to offer wage increases, but we have agreed to maintain teachers at their current pay rates and allow them to get their earned step increases. But we do not believe – for the same pay – the TEA should shift the impact of the Legislative mandated cuts onto the backs of students and their time in the classroom.”

SENIORITY

District position: In cases where the district has displacements (assignment and reassignment of teachers), decisions will be made based on an assessment of a teacher’s credentials, performance and individual school needs – rather than the traditional method that relies on reassigning the least senior teachers first. If a teacher disagrees with an assignment, a peer review team would review the case and make recommendations to the superintendent.

TEA position: Maintain the traditional system that, in most cases, seniority is the sole factor in decision-making if a teacher is minimally qualified to teach.

Explanation: The district withdrew its proposal that would have removed seniority as the criterion for layoffs and built the new proposal that assignment and reassignment of teachers be based on credentials, performance and school needs. The district recognizes that with 55 schools, including many specialty schools, innovative programs and high-needs schools, the single most significant way to increase academic achievement for students is to match the needs of a class with the best, highest-quality teacher possible. To do so requires considering a wider range of qualifications than the traditional method of seniority alone as the TEA still demands in most cases.

“We built our proposals on set of assessment methods proposed by TEA to assist in assignment and reassignment of staff,” Jarvis said. “While we understand that experience has value in any profession, we must have the ability to look at a range of qualifications; otherwise, we’ll face a revolving door of skilled but less senior teachers who might be the best match for open positions.”

At the bargaining table today, the parties continue to work on the proposals in an effort to ensure that school starts on time for Tacoma students.

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