Whether or not Sumner-Bonney Lake School District teachers, bus drivers, and nutrition workers will go on strike will be determined by events spanning the next few weeks.
The district is just one of many in Washington that are rushing to approve staff contracts before school begins, in light of the state legislature’s approval to funnel $1.2 billion into schools during their last session.
Since the State Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the state of Washington should bear the weight of fully funding basic education — rather than school districts relying heavily on local property tax levies — lawmakers decided in June 2017 to earmark $1 billion for schools across the state.
However, the court found that was not enough money to bring up educators’ wages to an appropriate level by the 2018-2019 school year, so legislators approved another $1.2 billion in March 2018 to satisfy the court.
It’s that new $1.2 billion pot that is creating tension between school districts and their employees at the bargaining table.
The Sumner-Bonney Lake School District is currently negotiating contracts with two groups of employees — certificated staff, which are the K-12 teachers, and classified staff, which generally includes employees that are neither teachers nor administration, but in this case only encompasses bus drivers and nutrition workers — and the most heated arguments are about what each party believes to be a fair wage raise.
Details on what offers and counter-offers have been made are scarce, since this is closed bargaining, but district staff, students, parents, and other community members made their displeasure clear during the packed Aug. 15 Sumner-Bonney Lake School Board meeting.
One bus driver, addressing school board members and Superintendent Laurie Dent, said the district’s attempt to low-ball a 3.5 percent raise for a classified contract was “offensive”; teachers said they felt discussions were getting “ugly” and have started talking amongst themselves about the potential of applying to other districts that will offer better wages; and a student said she’s “scared my education will be put at risk,” if the board can’t retain good teachers with competitive pay.
Now certificated and classified staff play the waiting game as the district and union negotiators return to the table, but as classified union representative Jim Payette said at the board meeting, “we are growing impatient.”
On July 24, classified staff “overwhelmingly” voted down the 3.5 percent raise contract, Payette said in an interview before the board meeting, and he “has no doubt” in his mind staff will authorize a strike during a Sept. 11 general union meeting if the district doesn’t offer a double-digit percentage raise.
“3.5 percent isn’t going to remotely cut it for this group, not this year,” he said. “In years past, maybe, but not with McCleary.”
Sumner’s classified staff has not had a contact with the district for a year.
Gabrielle Wright, the president of the Sumner Education Association, appeared more hopeful that a good deal for certificated staff will be reached.
As of Aug. 13, “We do not have a tentative agreement with the district, although there was good progress made,” Wright said in an interview before the board meeting. “Both teams were working very hard, and our team left that evening feeling there was good progress made.”
Even so, teachers are gearing up for a fight, having voted on Aug. 13 to give their bargaining team the power to call a strike vote if negotiations don’t go their way.
The teachers’ contract expires Aug. 31.
THE FINANCIAL DETAILS
According to a Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s spreadsheet on its website (“Updated Multi-Year Budget Comparison Tool”) the Sumner-Bonney Lake School District is receiving approximately $120.5 million from both the state and local property tax levies for the 2018-2019 school year.
However, the OSPI tool doesn’t include all revenue streams — for example, transportation — Warmuth said, and the school district is expected to receive closer to $138 million from the state and local levies.
But in regards to certificated and classified staff salaries, the district and union bargaining teams are only examining a $15 million pot.
When state legislators approved that additional $1.2 billion in March, the Sumner-Bonney Lake School District received $20 million.
However, because of the nature of the McCleary decision, as state funding goes up, local levy revenue goes down.
“McCleary was about the fact that school districts were having to rely heavily on local property taxes in order to run their schools,” said Tim Garchow, executive director of the Washington State School Directors’ Association, which helps support school boards all over the state. “The state was not providing enough money to cover the actual cost of basic education. Part of those costs include teacher salaries.”
As such, Sumner-Bonney Lake is expected to receive roughly $5 million less in local levy revenue in the 2018-2019 school year than in the previous year, netting a total of $15 million extra for the upcoming year.
But salaries aren’t the only thing that $15 million is going toward, Warmuth said, adding this money also funds instructional materials, supplies, operating costs and contracted services — all of which are a part of the collective bargaining process.
According to the OSPI tool, the district’s levy revenue is expected to decrease another $4 million for the 2019-2020 school year, so even though OSPI expects the district to receive an additional $2 million from the state that year, the district could only have around $11 million that year.
For the 2020-2021 school year, OSPI expects both state funding and local levy revenue to pick up, giving the district around $14.5 million for that year.
OPSI strongly notes its calculations are estimates, and “this model in no way represents a guarantee of future funding for any school district.”
OTHER SCHOOL DISTRICTS
While many school districts are currently negotiating contracts with staff, around 30 have already agreed to give their teachers double-digit percentage wage increases, according to the Washington Education Association.
For example, certificated staff at the Lake Washington School District in Redmond and Kirkland received an average 12.2 percent raise, bringing the minimum teacher salary to $53,000 and the max to $111,000. Lake Washington has approximately 29,000 students, compared to Sumner-Bonney Lake’s 10,000.
The Bellevue School District agreed to an average 17.2 percent raise for its teachers, maxing out its top teacher salary out at $111,000. There are about 20,000 students in the district.
The North River School District gave its teachers a dramatic 34 percent average raise, though that caps the top teacher salary out at $85,000. North River has just over 60 students.
Some classified staff secured raises, as well. Over in the Bainbridge School District (3,800 students), secretaries got an 18 percent average pay rise, maxing their hourly rate out at $51.91 an hour.
According to Warmuth, the Sumner-Bonney Lake School District is already required by the state to pay its teachers a minimum of $46,500 if they have a bachelor’s degree, and a max of $102,700, for the 2018-2019 school year.