Washougal teachers’ union, district edge closer to contract

Both sides still grappling with several issues, including COVID-19 safety concerns

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Washougal teachers walk the picket line during a strike in August 2018. The school district and its teachers' union are closing in on a contract for 2020-21, but say there are still issues to resolve -- including concerns about COVID-19 safety precautions. (Post-Record file photo)

The Washougal School District and Washougal Association of Educators have made significant progress toward finalizing a new teachers’ contract, but have yet to reach agreement on several key issues, including pandemic-related safety concerns.

The parties began negotiating in late February, before the outbreak of COVID-19 shuttered schools. Since then, the bargaining sessions have been conducted virtually, via Zoom.

“We are moving forward and (are) optimistic,” WSD superintendent Mary Templeton said. “Both sides are committed to finding agreement as quickly as possible, and we’re making progress.”

According to a statement on the district’s website, the parties have scheduled several additional bargaining sessions for late July and August “as work continues toward a contract that addresses concerns, and ensures the investments the community makes in education are letting us know, nurture and challenge students to rise.”

WAE president Eric Engebretson said that while he’s optimistic the two sides will reach an agreement, the last bargaining session, held on June 29, wasn’t as productive as he had hoped it would be.

“Overall, I feel that everything is going pretty well, but the last session wasn’t our best,” he said. “We kind of hit a couple of snags — not a brick wall, but still disheartening. But I still feel that we can get it done. If we could have everything wrapped up by the end of July, that would be fantastic. But we definitely want to get everything done before the start of the school year.”

School is slated to begin Sept. 2 in Washougal.

The parties’ inability to come to terms during their negotiations in 2018 led to a teachers’ strike and the cancellation of six school days before an agreement was reached. But according to Engebretson, the current sessions have struck a more positive tone.

“(Our salary discussions) are nothing like two years ago,” he said. “(These discussions) do feel different. I can’t really put it into words, but there is definitely a different feel.”

The parties have agreed on proposed changes in 45 categories, including safety, non-discrimination and leave provisions. The remaining 19 issues include salaries, supplemental contracts, special education and student discipline.

The district has allocated 80 percent of its 2020-21 budget to salaries and benefits for 18 administrative workers, 208 certificated staff members and 142 classified employees.

The parties are also negotiating an agreement, separate from the teachers’ contract, that will deal with pandemic-related changes.

The school district has prepared three scenarios for the start of the 2020-21 school year, depending on COVID-19 pandemic conditions and state regulations in place at that time. Those scenarios include: continuing the distance-learning programs implemented in March; introducing a “shifting schedule” model that would allow groups of students to rotate in and out of schools for in-person instruction; and opening schools to all students, with stringent safety protocols in place.

“We want to make sure that the workdays are equitable, everybody has safe working conditions and so forth,” Engebretson said.”There are a lot of variables. We know that the teachers all want to go back to work in-person with their students. However, I think we understand that when we go back, things will probably look different.”

“The No. 1 priority for us, and the district, is making sure that the kids are safe,” Engebretson added. “But the teachers have concerns about their own safety. We have a lot of older teachers who have underlying health problems, and everybody has to be aware of that. We’re kind of dealing with two separate negotiations — the basic contact and the (agreement related to COVID-19 concerns) — and they haven’t crossed.”

Engebretson said that teachers did “a great job” of switching to a distance-learning method to complete the 2019-20 school year.

“I commend them,” he said. “They (helped build) something on the fly and did their very best to connect with students. There wasn’t a blueprint, and it was completely new. (The distance-learning model) had a different feel. Some teachers were probably more at ease with it based on their comfort levels with technology. For this year, if we have a hybrid model, or all virtual, we need to make sure to narrow our focus on the technology we use to be more common across grade levels.”