A red-clad wave of teachers rallied outside the Kent School District Office on Wednesday evening, calling for higher pay and better treatment from district leaders who are tackling a budget deficit.
“We’re not backing down. We will continue to fight,” Christie Padilla, president of the Kent Education Association (KEA), told the throng of union teachers and staff members through a megaphone as she stood in front of district headquarters along Southeast 256th Street on the East Hill.
Teachers continued the show of solidarity inside, urging listening members of the school board at its regular meeting to invest in teachers and students. KEA members gathered hundreds of signatures from its teachers committed to the cause.
A budget update is on the agenda for the June 27 board meeting.
At issue are salaries, according to KEA members, and where school district leaders decide to distribute a windfall from the state Legislature. Gov. Jay Inslee signed a late-hour, new school-funding bill on March 27, bringing approximately an additional $75 million to the state’s fifth-largest district next school year.
The windfall has temporally helped the school district regain some fiscal footing as it continues to close a significant budget gap. The school district wasn’t sure about its financial forecast in March as it warned of potentially laying off 127 employees, including teachers, prior to the 2018-19 school year.
But the new revenue won’t change what already has been lost. The district has eliminated 37 central administration positions, nine school-based administrator jobs and the reduction of some employee benefits for the 2018-19 year. The cuts and reorganization represent a net savings of approximately $3.4 million, the school district said.
The updated budget also won’t change the fact the school district won’t fill 60 positions that will be lost to natural attrition.
The district ended the 2016-17 school year with a $5.6 million deficit.
Entering the 2017-18 school year as part of its budget recovery plan, the district made planned budget reductions and budgeting efficiencies. With these efforts, the district is projected to have a positive fund balance in August, Superintendent Calvin Watts said.
The district is now in the budget-formulating process.
“We want to be open and honest about the budget and what we are doing to restore our fund balance and to achieve and sustain fiscal solvency,” said Melissa Laramie, director of communications for the school district, in a phone interview. “Between our work sessions and all the information that we are sharing on our website, that’s what we are trying to do. It’s open and honest.”
‘We want a competitive salary’
The boost in state money, as Padilla understands, is earmarked for teacher salaries, not to fiscally bail out the school district. The state recently complied with the McCleary decision to fully fund education, and school districts are benefiting from it.
“That’s what the Legislature intended … to put the new money that the district is receiving into salaries,” Padilla said of the allocation from Olympia.
While the KEA’s contract with the district doesn’t expire until August 2019, what is negotiable is the new salary schedule, a situation where Kent teachers are demanding improved compensation. Other, local school districts are offering higher, more attractive pay – some reportedly as much as a 12-to-15 percent raise – and because of that, the Kent district has lost teachers.
“We want a competitive salary,” said Layla Jones, a newly-elected KEA executive board member and a kindergarten teacher at Panther Lake Elementary. “Neighboring districts all got raises last year. They all make more than what we make currently. Everyone here is really concerned with how the school district is going to look like next year, in five years, 10 years down the road if we don’t get these competitive salary raises.”
KEA members hope school district leaders will negotiate in good faith and offer much more than a minimal cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) bump that many teachers at Wednesday’s rally described as “insulting.” Kent teachers further point out they did not receive a pay increase for the 2017-18 school year.
The KEA was expected to present a proposal to the district Friday. Both sides, Padilla said, have met once before.
“The teachers are extremely frustrated,” Padilla said. “The district prematurely sent out the message that they are looking at a 3.1 (percent) cap. That might have been relevant a couple of years ago in the Legislature, but it’s our position that it’s no longer relevant and now we are able to bargain above that 3.1 cap.”
If the KEA negotiates an acceptable boost in salaries, the increases would go into effect Sept. 1, Padilla said.
Negotiations could be contentious, Kent teachers admit, making for possibly a long summer of discontent.
“A strike is not out of the question,” Padilla added. “We absolutely do not want to go there.”
Amid negotiations, Kent teachers have been critical of Watts and the school district leaders in how they have handled the budget plight.
“We are disappointed in his leadership,” Padilla said. “An example of that is the 127 layoffs without ever having conversations with the association to see if there were any kind of concessions we were willing to make or if we could work on this together. Decisions being made by just a few people at the district office are making a great impact, and I don’t think he realizes what that impact is.”
Jones added: “When you talk to (Watts), he’s a real personable, charming guy. His actions just don’t reflect the things that need to happen in the district. We’re in a budget crisis. We were going to have a teacher RIF (reduction in force) this year, and that put the whole district in turmoil, and we’re still seeing that aftermath now with teachers leaving the district.
“We want to work with administration, and get Kent back to where it needs to be.”
Kirk Stringer, a sixth-grade teacher at Springbrook Elementary, said the district needs to step up and give teachers the money Olympia has mandated for salaries.
“More angry than frustrated because of the way we have been treated by the district,” he said. “They’re greedy and they’re not transparent. They don’t tell the truth when they are forced to.”