Kent School District Superintendent Calvin Watts has an additional year on his contract and the school board has more time to examine and rework a budget that teachers hope will bring them better pay.
Despite teachers and parents voicing their dissatisfaction with Watts’ leadership and his handling of the district’s budget crisis, the school board on Wednesday night approved a modified contract extension that keeps the embattled superintendent at the helm until June 2021.
That decision came after the school board rejected a proposed 2018-19 budget that reflected a $33 million “rainy day,” projected ending fund balance, but affords no more than the district’s offer of a 3.1 percent, cost-of-living wage bump to teachers.
Kent teachers are demanding better pay, but the latest negotiations with a mediator have gone nowhere, according to leaders of the Kent Education Association (KEA), the union representing about 1,500 teachers.
Red-clad paraeducators took the stage Wednesday, with its union members exercising a rally outside district headquarters prior to the board meeting.
Teachers voted Aug. 14 to authorize a strike if the KEA’s bargaining team and school district cannot come to a tentative agreement on a new teacher salary schedule by Wednesday, Aug. 29, the day before school is scheduled to start.
Kent is just one of many statewide districts renegotiating teacher salaries after the recent McCleary Supreme Court ruling guaranteed about $1 billion toward teacher wages. KEA members say that money is intended for teacher salaries, not bail out the district’s financial problems.
The Kent School District is receiving approximately $74 million for K-12 educator salaries.
As for Watts, the board voted 3-1, with one member abstaining, to extend his contract despite public outcry.
“We’re not under any urgency to do this now,” said board member Ross Hardy, who voted against the addendum. “We can take time to look at any outstanding issues prior to making this vote.”
But Hardy’s motion to table the vote drew no support.
Watts’ extension comes at a time of scrutiny. Parents and community members have called for his resignation, blaming Watts for the district’s financial plight. In early April, Kent teachers cast a vote of no confidence in Watts.
Parents in the school district filed a complaint in May, alleging Watts’ participation in events with the Education Research and Development Institute, a Chicago-based company that pays top school officials honoraria of about $2,000 for giving feedback on education-technology products. Parents claim that action is a conflict of interest.
Watts said he did nothing wrong, telling the school board about the honorarium at a meeting in February. His current contract requires him to seek prior approval before accepting paid consultation beyond his work in the school district.
The new contract adds language on conflicts of interest and outside consulting work. It keeps Watts’ annual salary at $254,500, but the new deal stipulates the board will consider a percentage increase before July 1 of each year.
Teachers and paraeduators who jammed the board meeting Wednesday were surprised that the school board would extend the contract of someone who has unresolved, uninvestigated allegations. They were surprised, given the budget battle and the threat of a strike.
“The time to act responsibly is now,” Kristin Pinter, an elementary school teacher, told Watts and the school board during the public hearing. “By voting tonight on a budget that clearly does not use McCleary money to appropriately and fairly compensate Kent School District employees but fill a rainy day fund instead tells your constituents that you are not listening and don’t care about them.
“By voting tonight to extend Dr. Watts’ contract blatantly disregards the feelings and desires of your constituents.”
After listening to public testimony from teachers seeking better pay, the school board turned down the proposed budget. Board members Hardy, Maya Vengadasalam and Denise Daniels voted no. Karen DeBruler and Debbie Straus abstained.
The decision drew a standing ovation from the crowd.
Budget makers will be back to work.
In his presentation, Ben Rarick, executive director of budget and finance for the school district, said the 2018-19 budget represents a transition for the school district that “pivots away from any structural deficits and a pivot toward long-term financial stability and sustainability, so we don’t repeat the year that we just went through and the challenges our deficit created.”
Rarick said the proposed budget’s projected ending fund balance of $33 million is for long-term fiscal sustainability of the district’s financial situation, given that local revenue will be decreasing and additional costs will occur in the future. The budget is made in concert with the district’s four-year financial projection forecast as required by state legislation.
Teachers say that additional state money needs to go to salaries, keeping the district competitive with others that offer better pay. Approximately 300 teachers have left the district since April 15, according to the union, and more will follow if the district does not support its educators.
And many of Kent’s “mentor” teachers are leaving the district.
“If you commit this district to have the lowest wages in the region, you’re going to be bottom feeders when it comes to taking students out of college,” Steve Lawrence, a teacher at Grass Lake Elementary, told the board. “You’re not going to attract the best and the brightest and you’re not going to retain those who achieve a high level of teaching skills. They’re going to leave.
“Whatever you do, you have to come up with a way to stay competitive,” he said. “It is all about meeting the standards of the region, not the standards presented by a superintendent or a staff, the very people who have got us into a negative balance. You have to figure a way out of this that does not cut the throat of this district.”