Saved before the sound of the first class bell, the Kent School District and its teachers found labor peace – for now.
In a late-hour deal that boosted teachers salaries and avoided a likely strike, the school board approved a two-year contract agreement with the Kent Education Association (KEA) at a special meeting Sept. 5.
The KEA, the union that represents about 1,500 district teachers, ratified the two-year, tentative agreement at a general membership meeting in the Kent-Meridian High School gymnasium on Aug. 29, the day before the start of classes. Sixty-nine percent of the 1,149 KEA members in attendance voted in favor of the contract.
Just last week, the school board made the contract official with its OK.
Kent teachers will receive a 10 percent boost in pay the first year, 4.5 percent the next year.
While other school districts successfully negotiated pay raises between 15 and 22 percent for educators, Kent’s first-year pay raise figure represents the average increase teachers will receive under new contracts brokered throughout the state, according to the Washington Education Association.
Auburn teachers earned an 11 percent pay raise this school year, and Federal Way teachers got a 12.5 percent bump.
For Kent, the minimum, starting salary for a certified teacher went from $46,463 last school year to $53,979 this year, according to the new contract. The maximum salary for a certified teacher goes from $87,575 last school year to $103,754 this year.
“The new contract includes an important investment in the school district’s teaching staff,” the school district said. “The bargaining process took longer this year, given the new and complex state funding formula for staff compensation and the unique fiscal circumstances of KSD.”
Negotiations over pay centered on new state money the school district received from the historic McCleary Supreme Court settlement, dedicating about $1 billion toward teacher wages. In 2012, the state high court ruled that Washington state was failing to fully fund public education, triggering the Legislature last year to approve additional funding over two years for schools.
“It was a decent compromise in that our goal was to get a 15 percent increase,” said Christie Padilla, KEA president. “The Kent School District still has a way to go if they want to be competitive with neighboring districts. We will continue to lose teachers to districts that pay more, unfortunately.”
Extensive talks took a heavy toll on both sides, school leaders and teachers said. KSD and KEA bargaining teams worked since May 16 to reach an agreement, even using a mediator to ensure that school would start on time.
“This bargain (season) was the most contentious in my six years of experience on the bargaining team,” Padilla added. “The result ended in a lot of damage to the relationship between management and KEA. It will take years to recover from that.”
School district officials cautioned that trying to achieve a level of salaries competitive with other districts may have consequences down the fiscal road. Bargaining team members recognized the investment in 2018-19 and 2019-20 salaries and beyond may result in reductions in force for KEA members as early as the 2019-20 school year, with the process beginning in spring 2019. This understanding resulted in a letter of agreement that was included in the KEA/KSD tentative agreement reached on Aug. 29.
“We appreciate the open and honest conversations in the bargaining process, the recognition of the need to be fiscally solvent, and the signing of the letter of agreement by KEA union leaders to ensure that we will work collaboratively through the reduction in force process should the need arise,” said Chief Human Resources Officer Moriah Martin.
The district, in laying out its four-year budget projection as required by the state, is working to close a budget gap brought on by past overspending and miss-projected enrollment. The KSD entered the 2017-18 school year with a deficit of approximately $5.6 million. Measures were immediately taken to get the school district out of the red, as directed by KSD Superintendent Calvin Watts.
“Our district budget recovery efforts over the last two school years included limiting central office materials budgets, restricting travel, imposing administrator furlough days, central administration reductions in force, school-based administrator reductions in force, and KEA position elimination through natural attrition,” Watts said. “As a result, current projections show a positive ending fund balance for the 2017-18 school year, due to the combined efforts of our dedicated staff.”
In an Aug. 22 letter to statewide school districts, OSPI (Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction) Superintendent Chris Reykdal warned:
“You are limited by what you can afford and what you can sustain. The KSD board and district wrestled with how to provide statewide competitive salaries and be responsible stewards of district resources and taxpayer dollars within the inequities in the state funding system. This has been a statewide experience. The lack of a fund balance going into bargaining, provided the district even less opportunity to negotiate with employee groups this year.”
KEA represents 49 percent of the school district employees, one of eight represented employee groups, and only one of the five open contracts that were being negotiated this year, the school district said. Bargaining with three represented groups, including the Kent Association of Paraeducators, continues.
“We’re committed to providing all KSD staff with fair and competitive wages,” said KSD Board President Maya Vengadasalam. “As a board, we take very seriously our role as stewards of the public’s resources; unfortunately, in offering fair and equitable wage increases for staff, our fund balance is negatively impacted. It is imperative that our legislators from across the state come together to fix the school funding inequities that remain statewide.”
Kent – with its 42 schools and 27,000 students – is the fifth largest school district in the state.