Seattle public school students are headed to their first classes of the year Wednesday morning after teachers voted at 8 p.m. Tuesday night in favor of a contract with their district, Seattle Public Schools (SPS), avoiding a strike that would have impacted nearly 50,000 students.
The ratification, actually of three separate contracts, came after more than a week of fraught negotiations that frustrated teachers and other district employees busily preparing for the year and families ready to head back to school.
"Tonight we are voting on a very different contract than the one we had last week," said Rich Wood, communications organizer at the Washington Education Association, the statewide teachers' union.
Union officials stated that the new contract showed progress in five key areas: teacher pay; education specialist caseloads; professional development for paraprofessionals and workload relief for non-supervisory administrative staff; protection of collaboration pay for elementary school teachers, who would also get to direct how they spend the extra 30 minutes of their work day; and teacher evaluations.
But some Seattle Education Association (SEA) members, who came to Benaroya Hall the night before school was scheduled to start to vote on the contracts between SPS and its teachers, paraprofessionals and administrative staff, felt differently.
"This contract is the same as the one they told us to reject last week," said Adams Elementary Special Education teacher Tom Baisden.
Key changes in the new, two-year contract:
- An increased pay raise (a 2-percent raise for the 2013-14 school year, 2.5-percent the year after, plus the return of one furloughed day worth .5 percent); SEA calls it the largest pay raise in five years.
- A promise to review Educational Staff Associates (ESA) caseloads.
- 30 minutes added to the elementary school work day (will be teacher-directed time).
- MAP test will no longer be part of teacher evaluations. Teachers and administrators will collaborate on student growth plans. State test scores will no longer automatically trigger comprehensive reviews.
On Monday, Aug. 26, SEA voted to reject a contract put forth by SPS, citing several major points of contention. The key sticking points were teacher pay, length of the elementary school day, caseloads of ESAs and the teacher evaluation protocol.
Unable to reach agreement, after the contract was rejected the two sides called in a mediator and crafted a new plan, which was tentatively agreed upon early Sunday morning. The sighs of relief around Seattle were practically audible, as parents and teachers resumed planning for the first day of school.
But on Monday, at a meeting of the SEA Representative Assembly, the new agreement was hotly contested by union representatives who then voted whether to bring it to their members. Baisden and others report that the vote was 47 to 47, with SEA President Jonathan Knapp casting the deciding vote in favor of the contract.
Coming into Tuesday's general assembly meeting, some teachers, including Baisden, were rueful. "We're dissatisfied with the agreement, but no one wants to strike. Ultimately, teachers just want to work with kids," he said.
"No one wants to strike" was the oft-repeated refrain among those present at the meeting. "I've been with the District for 28 years," said a woman who declined to give her name. "It's the longest relationship I've had."
"We don't want to let down parents and the community [by voting for a strike]," she added, "especially since they always support our school levies."
Adding fuel to the fires of frustration were last-minute glitches in the new online student information system, which left teachers unable to contact their new students with the traditional welcome letters and supply lists and sent some teachers scrambling to reconfigure their classrooms because new students were added to the class roster a few days before classes were scheduled to start. These mistakes eroded confidence in SPS, which spilled over into the contract negotiation process, a group of teachers and a school counselor said.
Once a quorum was reached Tuesday night, SEA members retreated behind closed doors for an explanation of the updated contracts, followed by debate, discussion and the votes. Paraprofessionals and administrative staff easily approved their contracts by voice vote.
Then it was time to debate the contract governing teachers and other certificated staff, which includes school counselors, nurses and other specialists.
Wood reported that speakers were lined up behind 10 microphones set up in the meeting space. Some teachers, who wandered out into the lobby, expressed frustration over the amount of discussion, saying they wanted to vote and go home so they could be rested for school the next morning.
After the allotted speaker time was over, SEA President Knapp called for a voice vote. He later told reporters that the results were unclear, so he asked for a show of hands. From that, he ruled that the contract was approved. The ruling was contested and a division vote was called. Knapp asked the general assembly whether they would affirm his ruling. They did so by standing up.
As teachers and other certificated staff members spilled out into the lobby, reporters swarmed them to gauge their reactions before they rushed home. "I am satisfied," said Hamilton Middle School Spanish teacher Amanda Reichert.
"I am not," said her colleague, Spanish teacher Anna Nuno. "They beat us down. We are tired. We want to go home."
Maria Rasmussen, who served on the paraprofessional bargaining team, was satisfied with the outcome of weeks and months of work. "We had a brilliant team and we worked hard under pressure. We [and SPS] worked hard together."
Soon the SEA members were gone and Knapp was alone in the high-ceilinged Benaroya lobby to explain the evening's proceedings to the media.
He called the agreement a "great contract" and characterized the decision as "a clear vote." Reaching an agreement was arduous, he admitted, but "we got to stand up for what we believe in."
Superintendent José Banda said of the process in a statement Tuesday night:
"I want to thank everyone involved for their hard work and dedication in negotiating this agreement. I appreciate each and every one of our staff members, whose work contributes to the academic success of our students. All of us at Seattle Public Schools look forward to welcoming our students and families to a new school year tomorrow."
In the end, said Knapp, the issues of contention received all of the attention, yet there is one groundbreaking item in the contract he does not want overlooked: A major overhaul in the way special education services will be delivered.
"This was settled weeks ago," he said. "It's a major win for everyone."