Union, school district enter mediation

Teachers’ contract expired Aug. 31

The Washougal School District has entered into mediation with the teachers’ union after both sides were unable to agree on a contract.

A three-year agreement between the Washougal Association of Educators and the district expired Aug. 31.

“The parties have mutually agreed to honor and comply fully with the agreement pending the outcome of the current bargaining process,” said Mike Stromme, superintendent. “The expiration, therefore, has no impact on teachers’ rights, benefits and working conditions.”

Frank Zahn, WAE president, said the teachers have chosen to continue working based on the needs of district patrons.

“We at WAE continue to try to bring the Washougal School District to a contract that is responsible and respectful to both sides,” he said. “The district, in our opinion, certainly has the finances.”

Zahn noted that at the end of the 2014-15 school year, the district’s reserve fund was around 18.7 percent, or $6.5 million.

Stromme confirmed that the reserves have risen above the district’s policy of at least 6 percent.

“The district is fortunate to have a healthy fund balance after years of economic challenge,” he said.

He added that the additional balance is in place for future planned expenditures associated with the bond-funded construction projects such as the new elementary school, replacement Jemtegaard Middle School and Excelsior High School, safety upgrades, new transportation facility and other improvements.

“The fund balance resources are a result of one-time revenues that can only be used for one-time expenses, as they are not self-replenishing from year-to-year,” Stromme said.

According to Zahn, while the district is “more than prudent,” in its management of public funds, it has been coming up short in responsibilities to staff. He provided examples including split classes between grade levels, class size overload in lower grades, the need for qualified special education personnel and the challenges associated with finding substitutes.

Zahn also noted that compensation for Time, Resources and Incentives, known as TRI, hovers in the 5.1 to 5.7 percent range in Washougal, whereas Camas teachers receive 14 percent and other school districts in the area are around 11 to 12 percent.

TRI is to compensate teachers for the time they spend outside of class, such as nights and weekends, preparing for school.

“Washougal is behind-the-times,” he said. “I think it is important for the public to know how its school system is working with its employees. We are working without a contract, because we feel that we need to be with the students in the classrooms. But my responsibility as union president is to make sure my teachers can make their bills at home. We’re not trying to get rich, but we want parity. The word I don’t want to use is strike.”

Stromme said the school district would continue to work with the Washougal Association of Educators to achieve a positive outcome in the collective bargaining process that is in the best interest of the community.

“The WAE and the district were making progress on financial issues into September,” he said. “However, that progress has stymied in recent negotiations.”

The mediation process began earlier this month.

“The district views this as a constructive step in reaching an agreement,” Stromme said. “Neutral third parties can often help bring the sides together.”

Said Zahn, “We will work through those steps in the hope that we can come to an agreement with the district on a new contract.”

Camas teachers approved their contract Sept. 1, 2014, and it will expire on Aug. 31, 2017.