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Federal Way teachers hope to avoid strike

by JODY ALLARD

Staff writer

As Federal Way teachers prepare for contract negotiations, recent strikes by Issaquah and Snohomish teachers are not far from anyone’s minds.

Currently in the third year of a three-year contact, the Federal Way school district is slated to begin contract negotiations with teachers this spring.

The outlook of teachers, union representatives and school administrators alike is bleak.

With teacher pay in Washington lagging behind the national average, local teachers, backed by the 75,000-member Washington Education Association, say they are prepared for a heavy round of salary negotiations.

But, in the face of a state budget deficit that is expected to reach more than $2 billion by the start of next January’s legislative session, funding for public education has already been targeted for cuts by state lawmakers.

Fresh from strike success in Issaquah, the WEA is ready for battle. Teachers are primed to fight not just for the protection of funding for public schools and equitable teacher salaries, but for the establishment of a long-term legislative education spending plan. Lawmakers, while emphasizing the importance of public education, stress that no program is safe from cuts.

Faced with a projected rise in teacher salary demands, coupled with a reduction in state funding, the district could be left holding the bag.

While educators acknowledge the possibility of a strike in Federal Way if their needs for higher pay and improved health benefits are not met, Mike Lewis, president of the Federal Way Education Association, emphasizes that the teachers have always maintained a good relationship with the district.

“A strike? I hope not,” said Lewis.

Despite their desire to work with the district, Federal Way teachers face many of the same issues as teachers in Issaquah and Snohomish who recently went back to work after weeks of strikes.

Of primary importance to the WEA, including approximately 1,300 Federal Way Public Schools’ teachers and certified staff, are ensuring that teachers’ salaries keep pace with inflation, preserving affordable healthcare options and maintaining voter-approved cost-of-living increases.

The Federal Way district, along with 261 other districts statewide, has adopted the state’s salary allocation tables for certified instruction staff.

Using a sliding scale based on education level and years of experience, teachers are paid between $28,300 (undergraduate degree and no experience) and $56,588 (graduate degree and 16 or more years of experience) in base pay for the 2002-03 school year. In addition to base pay, teachers are compensated an extra amount for additional responsibilities, such as added classroom time or work performed at home.

Under their current contract, teachers are paid for five mandatory days per year, in addition to state requirements. The additional days are used primarily for literacy training.

“We put this in place not just to provide additional compensation for teachers, but to provide additional training days,” said district Human Resources director Chuck Christiansen.

Another source of income to Federal Way teachers is eight or nine days of additional “responsibility” pay per year. Recognizing that teachers commonly spend multiple hours outside the classroom grading papers, developing lesson plans, and assisting students and parents, Christiansen says the district uses “responsibility” pay to compensate teachers for those additional hours.

Although local districts have no control over the amount of base pay teachers receive from state funds, they can use levy dollars to increase the amount of extra pay.

“It’s the extra pay that is subject to negotiations. It’s what is at stake in strike situations,” said WEA spokesman Rich Wood.

With teachers’ salaries in Washington dropping from fifth to 18th in the nation over the past 20 years, compensation is expected to be a top priority during Federal Way teachers’ negotiations with the district this spring.

Still, Lewis emphasizes that the teachers understand the difficult situation facing the district.

“We know that there’s going to be a huge budget shortfall at the state. We also know that translates into less of a budget with the district,” Lewis said.

In the end, he says teachers hope to work with the district to “allocate the proverbial pie.”

“It basically comes down to looking at what the budget is, how much money there is, and making priorities of what the district can pay and what we’re willing to accept,” said Lewis. “That’s what it’s all about.”

School administrators agree. Citing a “foundation of trust” developed between teachers and the district over recent years, Christiansen hopes to maintain amicable relations and avoid a strike situation.

The district and the teachers will join for bargaining training this winter, and have decided to begin contract negotiations this spring to give themselves plenty of time to reach an agreement. Both parties say they hope to have a contract in place by Aug. 31.

Although both parties hope for amicable negotiations, the district is facing potentially widespread budget cuts that could put school administrators in the position of choosing between improving teachers’ salaries and continuing some education programs.

Despite the passing of Initiative 732 in 2000, which guaranteed teachers an annual cost-of-living increase, salaries are still lagging behind inflation.

Pointing to a 21.77 percent cumulative increase in teachers’ salaries from 1992 to 2002, compared to a 32.91 percent rise in the Consumer Price Index in the same period, teachers say they are simply not being compensated fairly.

“Any way we measure it, teacher pay is just not competitive,” said Wood.

Another initiative aimed at reducing classroom size, I-728 –– also passed in November 2000 –– was among the most supported initiatives in state history, garnering nearly 73 percent voter approval.

Even with the initiatives in place, teacher pay remains an issue for the WEA. But, with the total cost of the two initiatives projected at $917 million in the 2003-05 budget cycle and $1.3 billion in 2005-07, legislators agree that neither initiative is safe from budget cuts.

Previously, overturning the initiatives would’ve required a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate. In January, more than two years after their passing, both initiatives can be overturned by a simple majority vote of the Legislature.

Local teachers argue that overturning voter-approved initiatives is no way to balance the flailing state budget.

I-732 and I-728 “were passed with community support, and i believe our association, the community, parents, the district, the (school) board — we all have an interest in seeing that those are maintained,” said Lewis. “For every dollar the Legislature takes away from education, the more the burden is put on the local level. There’s only so much money here. We don’t want to see that taken away.”

In this battle, school administrators and teachers are united.

“We felt that there was a very strong mandate from our community for I-732 and I-728,” said Christiansen. “Both sides are already lobbying our constituents.”

For the Federal Way schools, there is no clear answer to funding concerns.

On average, districts receive 75 percent of their funding from the state. When state budget cuts shrink the amount of funds a district receives, there are few funding alternatives.

State law limits the amount of money school districts can raise from property tax levies. As state and federal funding declines, so does the amount of money schools receive from levies.

With cuts projected in the amount of funds local districts garner from the state and local levies, Federal Way school administrators say that meeting teachers’ salary needs will put a financial strain on the district.

Faced with a decision between funding the salaries the district needs to attract and retain quality teachers and cutting education programs, Christiansen says programs have already been discussed for elimination.

For now, Christiansen declines to name specific programs.

“I would hate to have the specifics about that interfere with our talks with the teachers,” he said. “Have we looked at some things? Not formally. But, things have been discussed.”

Staff writer Jody Allard can be reached at 925-5565 and jallard@fedwaymirror.com

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