State budget and school districts

Now that state legislators have agreed on a new plan to fully fund K-12 public education, collective bargaining talks have resumed in earnest between the Longview and Kelso school districts and local teacher unions.

With contracts set to expire at the end of August, negotiators had reached a stalemate as both sides waited for the Legislature to produce an education funding plan. In the end, lawmakers’ solution to the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision — which required the state to pay teachers more — includes complex changes that will dramatically alter how Washington educators will be compensated.

“It’s the biggest change in how teachers are paid in 30 years,” said Rich Wood, a spokesman for the Washington Education Association. “Almost everyone who is currently teaching has been paid under the existing system, and that’s largely going away,” he said.

The new salary schedule, which will be phased in beginning with the 2018-19 school year, is based on a so-called levy swap that requires the state to pay a larger share of teacher salaries. In past years, teacher salaries have been supplemented in large part with funds from local levies.

In the 2016-17 school year, the average state contribution for a starting teacher’s salary was $33,412. How much districts actually got from the state varied widely because the state used an arcane accounting formula that rewarded districts that hired experienced teachers with master’s degrees. Education advocacy groups argued the state formula reinforced economic inequities throughout the state.

Under the new salary structure, the minimum state contribution for a first-year teacher will increase to $40,000 beginning in 2019. Maximum teacher pay will be capped at $90,000 per year, with exceptions for specialized teachers that teach science, technology, or math; bilingual education; or special education. Any increases above the maximum must be bargained for and funded locally.

Districts will still be allowed to use local levies to supplement salaries but the levies will be capped at $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed home value and new requirements will be placed on how levy funds can be used. Local school levies in Longview for 2016 were $3.31 per $1,000 of assessed value, according to public record.

For the 2018-19 school year, union negotiations for salary increases are limited to a minor cost of living increase or the statewide average teacher salary for that year.

Union officials say bargaining has become more important than ever. That’s especially true for teachers in districts like Longview and Kelso, where teachers on average have been paid less than others in similar-sized districts. For the 2017-18 school year, they’ll have a one-time shot at securing significant pay increases before the new state restrictions on collective bargaining kick in.

“The bottom line is that it’s still down to bargaining,” said Roy Maier, Lower Columbia Region director for WEA. Maier is representing both Longview and Kelso teacher unions in negotiations.

“The districts get that money as an allocation from the state and then you have to go to the table and try to get it,” he said.

Maier said it’s in everyone’s interest to give Longview and Kelso teachers a pay bump that aligns with the average pay for each district’s size code. Size codes group districts together based on student enrollment.

The average annual contribution from levy funds for a first-year teacher from other districts the same size as Longview was $12,994 last year, while a first-year Longview teacher, on average, received $7,942.

For school district the same size as Kelso, the average from levy funds for a first-year teacher was $9,589, compared to $7,344 for a first-year Kelso teacher.

Ron Kramer, human relations director for Longview Schools, said the district is still sorting through the details of the state’s new salary allocation model, adding it’s too early to tell exactly how it will affect negotiations.

“We anticipate working closely with the Longview Education Association on figuring out what those statutory changes mean for the short- and long-term bargaining,” he said in an interview. “What we are determined to do is make sure we bargain in good faith with the LEA,” he said.

The new budget deal will also take health care benefits off local negotiating tables. Nearly all school employees will be moved onto a new state-run health plan beginning in 2020, which will be subject to collective bargaining with the governor’s office and then approval by the state legislature. There will also be adjustments to how some teachers are paid based on class size.

Given the numerous changes to education in Washington, the main certainty seems to be that it will take more time to know what it all means.

“There are tremendous changes taking place in this state,” said Wood of WEA. “All 295 school districts are going to have to work through them with their school employees and with their communities to implement them,” he said.

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