In a late-hour effort to avert a likely strike, teachers and the Kent School District reached a tentative contract agreement early Wednesday.
The Kent Education Association (KEA), the union representing about 1,500 district teachers, was expected to gather for a general membership meeting to vote on the proposal Wednesday afternoon.
No details about the proposal have been released, but at the heart of the dispute is livable teacher salaries, boosting them to a competitive level with other school districts.
Melissa Laramie, school district spokesperson, said Wednesday that “the agreement includes an important investment in the school district’s teaching staff. The bargaining process took longer this year, given the new and complex state funding formula for staff compensation.”
Some teachers have called the deal “a miracle,” considering both sides remained far apart in a scramble to reach an agreement and avoid a strike Thursday when classes officially open. Talks necessitated mediation.
Both sides bargained for 14 hours Sunday, talks that stretched to 4:30 a.m. Monday. Negotiations continued throughout Tuesday.
Teachers had already authorized a strike if the KEA’s bargaining team and school district officials could not come to a tentative agreement on a new teacher salary schedule by noon Wednesday.
The mood was somber Tuesday.
“The union is not hopeful in that the district claims that the school board has set very restrictive parameters on (bargaining),” KEA President Christine Padilla said on Tuesday. “If an agreement is not reached by noon (Wednesday), Kent teachers will be on strike. Communications to other employees groups in our district indicate that the district expects to be on strike.”
The dispute focused on state money the school district received from the McCleary Supreme Court settlement. Kent is one of many statewide districts renegotiating teacher salaries after the state high court’s ruling guaranteed about $1 billion toward teacher wages.
Surrounding school districts and their teachers have settled, giving double-digit pay raises to educators.
The Auburn School District and the Auburn Education Association this week agreed on a two-year teacher contract that calls for salary increases of 11 percent in the first year and 1.9 percent in the second year.
Other districts still are negotiating.
KEA members adamantly have said all along that the new state money is intended for teacher salaries, not to bail out the district’s financial problems.
The Kent School District, which is trying to recover from a budget deficit, is expected to receive approximately $74 million for K-12 educator salaries.
The school board approved a 2018-19 budget during a special session and public hearing continuation at district headquarters last Friday night. According to the school district, the hearing was added to ensure that Kent schools could start on time and that the school board could adopt a budget before the state-mandated deadline of Friday, Aug. 31.
Despite teachers and staff urging school district leaders to adjust the budget to allow for improved salaries, the board passed the same budget it turned down just two nights earlier at its regular meeting.
The school board approved a budget that reflects a $33 million “rainy day,” projected ending general fund balance, but affords no more than the district’s offer of a 3.1 percent, cost-of-living bump to teachers.
Ben Rarick, executive director of budget and finance for the school district, said the $33 million is for the long-term fiscal sustainability of the district’s financial situation, given that local revenue will be decreasing and additional costs will occur in the future. The budget was made in concert with the district’s four-year financial projection forecast as required by state law.
Teachers said that additional state money needs to go to salaries, keeping the district competitive with others that offer better pay. Approximately 300 teachers have left the district since April 15, according to the union, and more will follow if the district does not support its educators.