Amid a red-clad wave of supporters, Christie Padilla thanked the throng as she turned away from the boisterous rally and walked to the Kent School District Office for pivotal negotiations with district representatives over teacher salaries Thursday morning.
Padilla, president of the Kent Education Association (KEA), was cautiously optimistic that the teachers union and school district could reach a deal.
Eight hours later, those talks yielded little results.
“Negotiations did not go as well as we had hoped,” Padilla said Friday by email. “Needless to say, the KEA Bargaining Team is extremely disappointed on behalf of our teachers, students, parents and community.”
Padilla said the school district has requested mediation, and the KEA has agreed to the process.
More talks are scheduled, Padilla said, but the negotiations will depend on the mediator’s schedule.
“This will definitely slow down the negotiations process,” Padilla warned.
Added Melissa Laramie, director of communications for the school district, in a statement:
“KSD has jointly scheduled further bargaining dates with our partners in KEA. It was mutually decided between lead negotiators from both our district and KEA to invite a mediator into our process to assist in our shared goal of reaching a resolution and begin school Aug. 30 as scheduled. We respect and value all KSD staff, including our teachers. One way we can demonstrate that respect is allowing all bargaining to happen at the table.”
Kent teachers want better pay, but negotiations with district leaders have not gone well during a prolonged summer of discontent. Thursday represented the last planned bargaining session, union leaders said, before classrooms officially open Aug. 30. If no final-hour settlement can be reached, an unwanted strike becomes more likely for the state’s fifth-largest school district.
“It’s a reality but it’s not one I’m willing to concede to yet,” Padilla said of the prospects of a strike. “There are a number of options that we have before we get to a strike. Nobody wants to strike. I don’t want to strike. There’s a number of things that we can try to do before we get to that place, but I think our members are angry enough to certainly consider that option.”
Teachers want more than an allowable 3.1 percent cost-of-living bump, but the district hasn’t offered more, union leaders said. The last negotiation session on July 19 lasted 40 minutes and ended without a resolution, union reps said.
“We are hoping, but they have not yet (offered more than 3.1),” Padilla said of boosting the salary scale. “They are bringing us a proposal this morning that we are hoping would be better than their 3.1 proposals from the past.”
The Kent School District 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 plight. The Kent School 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 reductions and efficiencies. With these efforts, the district is projected to have a positive fund balance this month, Superintendent Calvin Watts said.
The district is now in the budget-making process.
Said one teacher, who has worked in the district for 33 years: “We’ve never been in debt before. I don’t know, but how does that happen?”
The rally was the latest show of KEA’s strong solidarity. Parents, children, para-educators and teachers from other school districts joined the large KEA rally that began with sign-waving supporters stretching along Southeast 256th Street, drawing honks of approval from passing motorists. The rally then moved in front of district headquarters.
“It’s unfortunate that we have to do this … to push the district to do the right thing,” said sign-carrying Kris Hill, an English teacher at Kentwood High School. “(They need) to use the McCleary money that the Legislature set aside for us to pay us rather than cover up their budget issues.
“There’s a lot of frustration, worry and concern. That’s not just evident here from the people who have shown up for the rally, it’s evident in the number of teachers who have left the district.”
Padilla said approximately 300 teachers have left Kent schools for better-paying jobs in other districts over the past year. And filling those positions will become a challenge.
Other school districts have successfully negotiated new salaries for teachers, including Mossy Rock at a reported 25 percent increase for educators, according to the Washington Education Association (WEA). But Kent and neighboring school districts like Federal Way and Renton are facing struggles of their own to reach a deal.
A visitor at Thursday’s rally, Phyllis Campano, president of the Seattle Education Association, said, “Seattle (School District) hasn’t even put a number on the table. … The (high) cost of living is coming down to Kent. You all deserve more than 3.1 percent.”
Larry Delaney, a WEA board director, encouraged Kent teachers to go the extra mile.
“Keep the faith, keep the hope,” Delaney told supporters at the rally. “There’s a lot of work to do, but there’s cracks in the 3.1 position. When that door’s ajar, we have to make sure we kick it down. … If McCleary’s a marathon, we’re at Mile 27 right now. The end is right there. It might be an uphill fight to the end, but stick together for this last stretch. The payoff is at the end, the professional pay is in the end.”
The Kent School District needs to step up and do more for teachers, KEA members insist.
“They’re just not being fair to us … to cover their mistakes with our money,” said Barbara Wood, a sixth-grade teacher at Fairwood Elementary School, holding a sign that read “21%.”
For many teachers, a salary increase can be a “life changer.”
“I could move to Edmonds and make $20,000 more than I am making right now. But I don’t want to, I want to teach here,” Hill said.