Stalled: Schools and teachers reach a stalemate

Deadlocked on three big issues, Seattle public school teachers will likely reject their latest contract offer.
Crosscut archive image.

Garfield High hallways may remain empty if Seattle Public Schools can't nail a new contract with teachers.

Deadlocked on three big issues, Seattle public school teachers will likely reject their latest contract offer.

"The tone around the table has been very positive," said Seattle Education Association (SEA) president Jonathan Knapp on August 21, after the inaugural meeting of the Seattle Public School (SPS) board for the 2013-2014 school year. "The issue is money."

At that August 21st meeting, Knapp testified about another issue that has emerged as one of three main points of contention in contract negotiations between Seattle Public Schools and the SEA: teacher evaluations. Length of the school day and teacher compensation are the other two areas where the union and the District have not found common ground. Now, both sides have abruptly left the negotiating table without a tentative agreement. On Monday afternoon, August 26, Seattle's teachers will vote on the most recent SPS proposal. The expectation is that they will reject it.

All was relatively quiet on the contract negotiation front until mid-August. That’s when SEA leaders announced their dissatisfaction with an SPS proposal to increase class sizes in grades 4-12. Noting that Washington already ranks 47th in the nation in student-teacher ratios, teachers held a "Race to the Bottom" rally at Franklin High School on August 14 to protest the increase, which SPS had billed as a money-saving, capacity-driven initiative. By August 19, the District had taken the increased class size proposal off the table, an optimistic sign of good faith negotiating on the District's part.

Evaluating teachers

The current system for teacher professional development, growth and evaluation (PGE) was carefully crafted by SPS and SEA over a period of several months and has been lauded for its innovation. PGE establishes a shared set of effective teaching practices and standards, and uses student growth measures (standardized tests) as part of the teacher evaluation process. The sticking point here is timing.

Because Washington State is about to adopt new Common Core standards, which will require teachers to adapt their curricula to a new set of grade-level requirements, SEA wants a moratorium on linking state standardized test scores to teacher evaluations. The state’s new Common Core-aligned Smarter Balanced assessment comes online in 2014.  Why not wait until then, argue the teachers, to link test scores to performance under the new Common Core regime.

At the August 21 School Board meeting, SEA’s Knapp was passionate about waiting. "Careful collaboration has been our hallmark," he said. "Let's take the time to do this right." But after working so hard to craft a collaborative, groundbreaking agreement linking student growth measures to teacher evaluations, some wonder why SEA would want to take a giant step backwards by scrapping standardized tests as an assessment tool for the coming school year.

Scheduling teachers

Another issue on which Seattle’s teachers and schools disagree is length of workday. The SPS wants to restore 30 minutes to the elementary school workday, bringing that total to 7.5 hours. The additional 30 minutes is to be used for planning, teacher collaboration and reviewing individual student progress. Secondary school teachers already work a 7.5-hour day, SPS argues. And extending the elementary school workday is consistent with other districts in the region.

Crosscut archive image. The teachers' union doesn’t have a problem with the extra 30 minutes. But it wants that time used to restore art, music and physical education classes, which were cut during the 1970s when school levies failed and the teacher workday was shortened. Expecting teachers to spend an extra 30 minutes at school with "no real purpose" is "detention," Knapp (at left) argued in a letter to SEA members. One Seattle schoolteacher involved in contract negotiations put it in less stark terms: "Art, music and PE allowed classroom teachers to have preparation time. SPS wants to restore 'teacher on-the-clock' time. We want 'kid' time.'"

Paying teachers

The third hurdle to a settlement is teacher comp. SPS has proposed a 4 percent salary increase over two years and restoration of a 1.3 percent salary reduction which was mandated by the state legislature. SEA says in order to hire and retain good teachers, SPS needs to pay them adequately and at a rate that is consistent with what other school districts offer. Translation: 4 percent isn’t enough.

The relationship between performance and seniority in determining pay raises is also a sore point within the teaching community, and an issue the community group Our Schools Coalition would like addressed in the 2013 contract.

If, as expected, SEA members vote to reject the current SPS contract proposal on Monday afternoon, two things can happen: Both parties can come back to the negotiating table and attempt to craft a new proposal, or the SPS can hold its ground. Either way, there likely won’t be any resolution until the next SEA general meeting, where teachers would again vote on their future. That meeting is scheduled for September 3, the day before school starts.

Striking teachers?

All of which begs the question: Will Seattle public school teachers go on strike? The No Strike Clause, Article XIII, in the current teacher contract was not something open for negotiation in the last round of bargaining, according to Lizanne Lyons, who was chief negotiator for SPS during the 2010 contract talks. "I'm guessing that language has been in the contract for many years," she says.

To understand what the no-strike clause actually means, says Lyons, the contract language needs to be evaluated in light of state law. "Public unions in our state don't have the legal right to strike, but this has always created ambiguity,” she says. “Many argue that not having the right to strike means you cannot do so. Others argue that you can strike, but that you don't have any of the protections that those on a picket line normally would have if strikes were sanctioned. Article XIII is very clear in saying, though, that the union cannot cause or encourage its membership to engage in a strike. There is no ambiguity there."

In recent years, the Puget Sound area has seen strikes in the Kent, Bellevue and Tacoma school districts. The District sought a court injunction to end the 2011 Tacoma strike. During that 10-day shutdown, 28,000 students stayed home from school, leaving parents upset and some scrambling for childcare.

One possible outcome of the Seattle standoff is that SPS and SEA agree to roll over the current teacher contract for another year. This has happened before, most recently in 2009, during the contentious contract negotiations when Maria Goodloe Johnson was at the SPS helm.

By contrast, the 2010 contract negotiations were heralded as constructive and collaborative. Many Seattle public school watchers hoped the 2010 process would usher in a new positive relationship between SPS and SEA. The two parties may yet reach an agreement. But for the moment at least that constructive, collaborative 2010 atmosphere seems like a distant memory.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Alison Krupnick

Alison Krupnick

Alison Krupnick, longtime Crosscut contributor, is the author of "Ruminations from the Minivan" and the blog "Slice of Mid-Life."