Stalled: Seattle's Public Schools and Teachers Reach a Stalemate

Published on: December 30, 2013

sps-stalemate"The tone around the table has been very positive," said Seattle Education Association (SEA) president Jonathan Knapp  on Aug. 21, after the inaugural Seattle School Board meeting for the 2013–2014 school year. "The issue is money."

At that Aug. 21 meeting, Knapp testified about another issue that 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 reaching a tentative agreement. On Monday afternoon, Aug. 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 SPS's proposal to increase class sizes in grades 4–12. Noting that Washington already ranks 47th nation-wide in terms of student-teacher ratios, on August 14 they held a "Race to the Bottom" rally at Franklin High School to protest what 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.

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 in final implementation stage of the new Common Core standards, which will require teachers to adapt their curricula to a new set of grade-level requirements, SEA proposes a moratorium on linking state standardized test scores to teacher evaluations. The state's new Common Core-aligned Smarter Balanced assessment comes online in 2014–2015. Why not wait till then, argue the teachers, to link test scores to performance under the new Common Core regime?

At the Aug. 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, ground-breaking agreement, some wonder why SEA would want to take a step backwards by scrapping standardized tests as an assessment tool for the coming school year.

Keeping Teachers

Another issue on which Seattle's teachers and schools disagree is length of workday. SPS wants to restore 30 minutes to the elementary school work day, 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.

SEA 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 argued in a letter to SEA members. One Seattle school teacher, 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 compensation. SPS has proposed a 4% salary increase over two years and a restoration of a 1.3% salary reduction 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. The 4% bump isn't enough.

The issue of performance vs. seniority in determining teacher 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 SPS can hold its ground. Either way, there likely won't be resolution until the next SEA general meeting, where teachers would again vote on their future. That meeting is scheduled for Sept. 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, said 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."

To understand  what the no-strike clause actually means, said 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. Many argue that not having the right to strike means you cannot do so. Others argue that you can, but that you don't have any of the protections that those on a picket line normally would 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," she said.

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 ten-day shutdown, 28,000 students stayed home from school, leaving parents upset and some scrambling for childcare.

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

In contrast, the 2010 contract negotiations were heralded as constructive and collaborative. Many 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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