Kent teachers rally for better pay along Southeast 256th Street last Thursday, Aug. 9. The teachers union and the school district have yet to settle the dispute over salaries. MARK KLAAS, Kent Reporter

Kent teachers rally for better pay along Southeast 256th Street last Thursday, Aug. 9. The teachers union and the school district have yet to settle the dispute over salaries. MARK KLAAS, Kent Reporter

Kent teachers vote to authorize strike before start of school if agreement cannot be reached

Union, district agree to mediation as negotiations continue over a better pay scale

Kent teachers voted Tuesday to authorize a strike if the Kent Education Association’s bargaining team and the Kent School District cannot come to a tentative agreement on a new salary schedule by Aug. 29, the day before school is set to start.

“KEA intends to bargain every single day that the district will agree to meet with us,” KEA President Christie Padilla said following a general membership meeting at the Meridian Middle School gymnasium. “We absolutely do not want to strike. We need to keep the best teachers in the district because that’s what’s best for kids. Competitive salaries is one way to ensure we keep the best teachers.”

More than 700 of the KEA’s 1,500 members attended the meeting Tuesday, with 97.2 percent voting in favor of a motion to authorize the KEA bargaining team to strike if an agreement is not reached before the first day of school.

Recent negotiations have failed to settle matters. Following an eight-hour session last Friday, the school district requested mediation, and the KEA agreed to the process.

“Negotiations did not go as well as we had hoped,” Padilla said of the marathon meeting. “Needless to say, the KEA bargaining team is extremely disappointed on behalf of our teachers, students, parents and community.”

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.

Teachers gathered to form a red-clad wave of support during a rally outside school district headquarters on Thursday, Aug. 9. Teachers want more than an allowable 3.1 percent cost-of-living bump, but the district hasn’t offered more, union leaders said.

The 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.

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 the district office.

“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.

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