Camas teachers vote to strike

Educators will picket if no agreement by first school day, Sept. 4

Camas teachers are the latest Southwest Washington educators to say they will strike if their union and school district cannot reach a tentative agreement on salary schedules by Sept. 4, the scheduled first day of school.

Camas Education Association (CEA) members passed the strike vote Monday, Aug. 27, with 95.7 percent of members in attendance voting “yes,” according to Shelley Houle, president of the Camas teachers union.

The CEA represents 452 full-time educators in the Camas School District (CSD).

Houle said the Camas teachers union has tried to rally for its members and get them a fair contract going into the 2018-19 school year.

“We’ve shown up to school board meetings. We’ve had several rallies. We’re getting about half our membership at these different things. We have parents and the community (members who) want to support us. We really feel like any movement that the district has made has been because of our actions,” Houle said. “So, (the strike vote) is kind of like a last, extreme action we can take to show that we think we’re worth it. We think we deserve professional pay for the work that we do.”

The negotiation teams met for about 20 minutes, on Sunday, Aug. 26, with the strike vote looming the next day, Houle said, but could not come to a tentative agreement.

The district negotiators said they could not provide a counter-proposal because they had no additional authority from the Camas School Board, according to the teachers union.

“We need a schedule, we’re willing to put in the hard work,” Houle said. “We were very disappointed that we didn’t get the full six hours (on Sunday) to come to agreement. We really thought that we would come out with a settlement that our members would accept and feel valued and honored, knowing that both sides did everything they could to make that happen.”

The district requested the groups enter mediation with the state Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC), and the union agreed.

The teams will meet with a PERC mediator during their negotiation session Thursday, Aug. 30.

Sides close to agreement on biggest sticking point: teacher salaries

The two sides are close to reaching an agreement, but still have a few sticking points, including the topic that has confounded dozens of Washington state school districts this bargaining season, after the state legislature approved a fix to the “McCleary decision,” a Washington Supreme Court ruling that said state lawmakers must make amends for underfunding public education and fairly compensate K-12 teachers.

Teachers unions and school districts have grappled with how to increase teacher salary schedules using state money from the lawmakers’ “McCleary fix.”

The union wants a compressed salary schedule that allows educators to reach lifetime earnings sooner, Houle said. The CEA also would like to see beginning teachers’ salaries start around $50,000, with veteran teachers’ salaries falling between $95,000 and $99,000.

The district’s latest proposal, presented on Aug. 24, has a starting teacher earning $48,866 and a veteran teacher earning $92,104 during the first year of the proposal, with a bump to $50,000 and $94,242 in the second year.

Houle said the district and union are close to reaching agreement on this latest offer.

“Our main concern is that, with every other district in Clark County on strike and asking for these numbers, those districts are looking to probably settle in high 90s, and we don’t think Camas should be one of the lower-paid districts in the county, when we have a 12-percent regionalization and other districts are receiving 6-percent,” Houle said, referring to the state’s “regionalization” formula that gives more money to teachers working in higher cost-of-living areas.

Progress between the two sides has been made, though. When negotiations began, Houle said, there was about a $5 million gap between the district’s proposal and the union’s desires. Now, there is about a $2 million gap between the proposals.

That gap factors in the cost of 20 new educators who were hired for the 2018-19 school year and are not accounted for in the state’s allocation.

The union president said it’s common for school districts to hire full-time educators who aren’t funded by the state and then pay them using local levy money.

“It really has come down to who’s going to bear the brunt of having so many unfunded teachers,” Houle said. “Again, it’s not uncommon. We understand that those teachers and those educators are needed to run the programs and to offer this quality education that people expect in Camas. But, who should pay for it?”

CSD Superintendent Jeff Snell said the difference really comes down to the average teacher salary amount.

The state funds Camas at $73,042 per teacher, Snell said.

Last year, the district had the top average teacher salary in Clark County at $76,253, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).

“That means that, without any sort of wage increase for the 2018-19 school year, a deficit of $3,211 per full-time teacher exists,” Snell said. “When you multiply that deficit by 400 to 450 teachers there is an annual overall deficit of $1,284,400 to $1,444,950.”

Snell said the district has already allocated more than $6.2 million from its local levy in 2018-19 for staffing costs to account for the deficit.

“That represents 52.6 percent of our levy funds,” Snell said. “We cannot allocate more from those funds unless we were to cut from other programs funded by (the) levy.”

The only other revenue source to pull from is the fund balance, and paying for salary increases from the fund balance is unsustainable, Snell said.

Asked about the teachers’ vote to strike if there is no agreement by the first day of school, Snell said he was “disappointed but not surprised” considering how many other school districts in Clark County and throughout Washington state are facing similar situations.

“We have a lot more work to do before the first day,” Snell said.

Houle said the union’s vote to strike should show district leaders that Camas teachers are resolved and believe they are worth the money they’re asking for.

“That they have waited over 10 years for the McCleary decision to actually reach them,” Houle said of the local teachers. “We believe the money was legislated. It was Supreme Court-mandated. And it was governor-approved. We appreciate that the district has given us TRI (time released incentive pay) in the past, but we know that there’s more to add on that.”

If the bargaining teams are able to come to a tentative agreement before Sept. 4, the union would have an emergency general membership meeting to hold a vote to ratify that salary schedule.

If this happens, school will start on time in the Camas district.

“That is our extreme hope,” Houle said of starting school on Sept. 4. “With extreme action comes extreme hope that we can get it done.”