Teachers picketed this week outside of a Kent School District leadership retreat at Kent-Meridian High School to let people know contract talks remain far apart.
“We want to make people aware they are not going well,” said Tim Martin, president of the Kent Education Association (KEA), in an Aug. 9 phone interview.
The teachers in June authorized a strike, if necessary. With the way negotiations are going, it could happen, Martin said.
“Everything is on the table,” he said. “We want to be optimistic and hopeful but it’s been difficult bargaining, one of the most difficult in my six years of being involved in negotiations.”
Martin said changes in administration, and labor relation attorneys who have not worked with school districts before, has made talks challenging. He said teachers do not feel like they are being supported by the administration.
Martin said three other unions in talks with district negotiating teams aren’t making progress either, including the maintenance and custodial staff and office professionals.
A Kent School District spokesperson declined to answer any questions from the Kent Reporter about the contract talks.
“The school district cannot provide comments on this ongoing process,” said Faith Sisley, director of communication and public affairs, in an Aug. 10 email.
Negotiations between the district and the KEA didn’t even start until July, a couple of months later than past contract talks, Martin said.
“The KEA asked the district to come to the table, which we typically do in May,” Martin said. “We’ve been ready. The district postponed. They said we could just do it in August.”
Martin said negotiations in the past have taken as many as 39 to 43 meetings to reach an agreement. He said the first talks were July 12 and have continued for about twice a week.
“That’s not enough time while both sides are working to reach a tentative agreement,” Martin said.
The current two-year contract expires Aug. 31. The KEA represents just under 2,000 teachers.
Martin said even when KEA and district negotiating teams meet, it can be a struggle. He said the district staff showed up 45 minutes late to talks on Aug. 9 and had no response to 11 proposals presented by the union because they wanted more time to prepare their answers.
“It’s been a struggle all year to work with the administration,” Martin said.
The administration includes new Superintendent Israel Vela, who was the interim superintendent until the Kent School Board hired him over two candidates from outside the district. The board also agreed to pay Vela a base salary of $355,000 per year as part of a three-year contract.
That pay is a 27% increase ($75,500) from the $279,500 per year previous Superintendent Calvin Watts made in 2021 prior to leaving to become superintendent of the Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia (for a base salary of $380,972). Kent hired Watts in 2015 at $250,000 per year.
Martin said there are many items to negotiate but the primary focus areas for the union include class size and caseload; mental health options for students; and competitive salaries to retain and recruit teachers. He said pay for Kent teachers is one of the lowest compared to surrounding districts.
Under the current contract, annual base salaries range from $57,179 for a first-year teacher to $109,104 for a teacher with 25 years experience and a master’s degree, according to the current contract. Teachers with 10 years experience make between $72,623 and $90,645 depending on their additional hours of study and degrees.
In addition to the picketing, the KEA has asked teachers to email the school board, “to let them know we are professionals and will not tolerate the district trying to weaken our union.”
The KEA will have its general membership meeting Aug. 22 when teachers could vote on approving a contract or find out where talks are if no agreement has been reached, Martin said.
The first day of school is Thursday, Aug. 25, which could mean a strike by teachers if no agreement is reached between the KEA and the district.
A late-hour agreement between the district and union in 2018 stopped a potential strike. Teachers went on strike in 2009 for about three weeks, which delayed the start of school until Sept. 15.