For the first time in at least 10 years, the Washougal School District and its teachers union have come to a bargaining agreement without mediation or arbitration.
The district and Washougal Association of Educators union reached agreement on the new, two-year teachers’ contract after their 18th bargaining session on July 29. Union members ratified the agreement on Aug. 21 and the Washougal School Board approved the new contract on Aug. 25.
“There was a commitment on both sides,” said Aaron Hansen, the school district’s assistant superintendent of human resources and student services. “We’re all on the same team, after all, and it felt like this time we were working together. There was mutual accountability, and we felt good about that. Going into (negotiations), knowing what we were going to be dealing with in the fall, there was a higher level of grace and patience, which helped.”
Union president Eric Engebretson, a fifth-grade teacher at Gause Elementary School, said it felt good to get the contract done so early this time.
“We worked really hard … We had a bumpy patch and some sticking points, but were able to get past those things,” he said.
The quick negotiations came two years after the stalled bargaining sessions in 2018 that led to a six-day teacher strike in Washougal.
“The last few (bargaining sessions) have gone to mediation, which is sometimes a necessary step in the process, but also a stress on the system,” Hansen said. “There’s no doubt that not being able to resolve it and being forced to bring somebody in weighs heavily on individuals.”
Hansen said the district’s goal this year was to settle without a need for mediation or arbitration.
“There’s a lot of communication between the district and union,” Engebretson added. “We still have our disagreements, of course. But we meet monthly with (WSD superintendent Templeton and Hansen) and those meetings, from our side, are really helpful. The communication with former superintendents was not as good. I think it’s more open now.”
According to a press release issued by the school district, the new contract includes increased investment in technology training for teachers, a state-provided increase in compensation, better benefits for special education teachers and language related to inclusive practices and removing discipline processes that create barriers to student participation.
“We’re working a lot on racial equalities and making sure that our marginalized kids have equitable opportunities,” Engebretson said. “We brought forth the issue of ‘closing the opportunity gap,’ and we have a contract now that truly addresses it, which is a good thing, especially with where we are at as a nation.
He said teachers wanted more uniform discipline procedures “to make sure that we all know what to expect and that everybody’s on the same page to help students get what they need in order to be successful.’
Engebretson said those special education teachers “work their tails off, but they’ve been kind of a separate entity, and what they’ve been getting hasn’t been equitable, so we wanted to strengthen that language to be more comparable to a general education teacher.”
Sides reach agreement on remote teaching
The two sides didn’t stop talking after agreeing on the teachers’ contract, however. On Aug. 27, they came to terms on a memorandum of understanding agreement that lays out pandemic-related working conditions and safety protocols.
The district wanted all teachers to work out of their school buildings even though the district has opted to start the 2020-21 school year online as opposed to in the classroom.
“The predictability of a stable internet connection is important,” Hansen said. “Also, the classroom setting, where their teachers will have access to their materials, is important, and will help with the transition to the hybrid model; they’ll be accustomed to being back in the building. We can still collaborate as professionals, adhering to social distancing and wearing masks. Our administration team did that in early August (for a meeting). Maintaining in-person connections is possible.”
The teachers’ union, on the other hand, felt teachers should have the option of teaching remote classes from their homes “due to safety concerns regarding COVID-19.”
“As we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into the works for schools — and everything else, for that matter,” Engebretson wrote in a statement to the district. “We now face a bigger challenge than ever before to educate our students. Teachers want to be back in their classrooms with their respective students because they know that this is the best model to reach and teach their students. However, teachers also know that there are inherent risks to teaching in person.”
The agreement reached on Aug. 27 states that some Washougal educators will teach remote classes from their classrooms, while others — including those who are at higher risk of exposure to the coronavirus — will teach from their homes.
Engebretson said the district and union had a few tense moments during discussions about where teachers would conduct remote classes, but “were able to come to an agreement.”