Washougal teachers, district reach deal

Tentative 2-year contract will now go to teachers, school board for final approval

Washougal teachers and the Washougal School District have reached a tentative agreement on a two-year contract for the 2022-23 and 2023-24 school years.

The contract will be presented to Washougal Association of Educators (WAE) members Oct. 18, for ratification and to Washougal School Board members for their approval on Oct. 25, according to James Bennett, president of the Washougal teachers’ union.

“We’re pleased that we were able to reach a tentative agreement,” said Aaron Hansen, the Washougal Schoo District’s assistant superintendent for human resources and student services. “We’re excited. We’ve spent a lot of time working on this together collaboratively, (and we can now) really focus on those things that are super important to us right now — supporting our students. I do feel good about our work. There’s a level of collaboration that occurred, as we are all on the same team working for the same goals. I would say that we feel good about the decisions that were made.”

Bennett said that he’s “quite pleased” with the agreement.

“There are compromises on both sides, of course, but we feel really good about the gains that we’ve made and the language that we have going into the future with this contract,” he said. “I feel confident (that teachers will) be happy with the deal.”

WAE representatives and the district’s bargaining team members met for about nine hours on Monday, Sept. 26, and Thursday, Sept. 29, to reach the tentative agreement.

“Our goal is always to be able to finish prior to the school year starting, but (the fact that we didn’t) didn’t mean that both sides were not interested in continuing to meet,” Hansen said. “We had some late afternoons and evenings, but it really paid off. It remained civil, respectful and collaborative. There were times when we had challenging conversations as we were trying to reach some understanding of what is best for the district, but I think we (reached that understanding).”

The teachers’ union asked the district to provide a 5.5% cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) that is in line with other districts in Clark County. The district initially offered a 4% COLA, then increased its offer to 5.5% and finally 7%, a number that union leaders deemed acceptable.

“We didn’t get a crazy increase more than the surrounding districts,” Bennett said. “We didn’t get as much as the Vancouver (School District); I believe Vancouver went up to 7.9. We didn’t get as much as the Ridgefield (School District) in terms of a percent increase. Now, Ridgefield had a lot farther to go. Their salary schedule was way, way behind the rest of the county. But if you just list out the percent increase for this year for the districts in the county, we’re right in the middle of that group.”

The district also offered a 3% cost-of-living increase in the second year of the contract, as well as one additional paid day off and additional funding for longevity stipends.

“(The cost-of-living increase is) important,” Bennett said. “Before 2018 and the McCleary decision, we were in a situation where a teacher could leave Washougal, go over to Camas and make $8,000 or $10,000 a year or more. We were losing good teachers. We had years when we’d have 30-plus new teachers because we had so many teachers leaving. We don’t want to lose good teachers. We want the good teachers here in our district teaching our kids, so (the COLA) is important from that standpoint. It’s also important to keep up with inflation. Everything costs more now, and it doesn’t look like that’s going to slow down anytime soon.”

If the contract is approved, Washougal teachers at the top end of the pay scale will make $112,585 in total compensation “and would still be among the highest paid teachers in the region,” according to the district’s website.

“It was important to us that we have market rate salaries for our certificated staff, and we believe that we do. That’s a priority,” Hansen said. “Having market-rate salaries, comparable salaries in the region, means that we’re going to be attracting and keeping high-quality, engaging staff. It’s so important for the success of our school district and for our students to have staff who want to be in Washougal and who want to be a part of what we are excited about.

“A lot of work was done in 2018 and 2019, and the gap that existed was closed as a result of similar negotiations. We are excited that that is still the case, and that Washougal has one of the highest paid groups (of teachers) in the region. That allows us to attract teachers and staff members who not only want to be in Washougal, but also stay in Washougal. Several years ago, that was a concern. We’re not seeing that (now). We’re seeing more commitment to the district and to the community than we were previously seeing when that gap existed.”

The two sides also discussed a variety of non-financial matters, including student discipline, professional learning community time, overload, advisory classes, and investments in paid professional development, according to the district’s website.

“One of the major things that came up was concerns around student discipline and how that’s handled,” Bennett said. “We spent quite a bit of time going back and forth on language surrounding student discipline, and we’re quite happy with it. There was a very small piece of language, but it turned out to be a really, really big deal, about seniority and how it’s counted in the district. That was important to us. It’s not just the financial piece. Really, it’s all these pieces together that make for a solid contract.”

The district also had several non-financial bargaining priorities, according to Hansen.

“Offering advisory classes at the secondary level was a high priority for us,” Hansen said. “(We want) our students at the secondary level to have access to (additional) time with teachers and a lower student-staff ratio to really connect, with a focus on high school-and-beyond plans and social-emotional learning. We’re excited about that because that’s something we’ve been trying to put in place now for a few years.

“The personal learning communities for our certificated staff are really important to us because they are an opportunity for our staff to collaborate and (receive) adult-learning opportunities. We’re looking forward to continuing that (effort) and retooling our PLCs to align to the framework. That’s a big investment for us, so that was a part of our discussions.”

Washougal teachers have been working since Tuesday, Aug. 30 under the terms of their former contract, which expired at the end of the 2021-22 school year.

“It took a while (to reach an agreement). I would have liked to have had it go faster,” Bennett said. “We spent a lot of time explaining our positions, explaining why we wanted what we wanted, and why we thought it was important for the language to be a certain way. Even when things got contentious, we had the ability to have a tough conversation without taking things personally. Both sides did a very good job of having those tough conversations without hurting feelings.”

Bennett said that the possibility of a work stoppage “was discussed” but not seriously considered by union members.

“All the options are on the table when you get to the point of school starting and whatnot,” he said. “But the reality is, in general, not just here in Washougal but in any teacher’s union, once the school year starts, it’s a little bit harder to get the teachers to agree to strike. The fact that Ridgefield went on strike after the school year started says a lot to their condition, the position they were in. Once the school year starts, teachers don’t want to go out of the classroom. They don’t want to disrupt the learning. They don’t want to have to redo the schedule, add days onto (the end of) the school year and things like that. Was it not an option after that point? No, it still was an option. But it would be a much more difficult situation to get the membership to agree.”

Hansen said that the possibility of a strike “was not an immediate concern” to the district “because we kept moving closer together to reach the agreements.”

“Even though there were challenging times as we were trying to assert our priorities, and maybe there was a distance, we just kept progressing,” he said. “We established early on what our ‘norms’ were going to be and our expectations for each other, and I think we did a good job of holding to those. What we saw happen in other districts, we didn’t necessarily experience that as far as some of the stuff that gets publicized. We were able to really focus and not get distracted by some of that energy.”