Washougal teachers contract in limbo

Union asks for 5.5% cost-of-living increase, district offering 4%

Washougal Association of Educators (WAE) members began the 2022-23 school year without a new teacher contract after failing to reach an agreement with the Washougal School District by the first day of school on Tuesday, Aug. 30.

“(We) have not voted on any kind of work stoppage at this time,” WAE President James Bennett told the Post-Record on Monday, Aug. 29. “We expect the school year to start tomorrow and are looking forward to welcoming our students back. … Our focus remains on reaching a deal that includes fair pay for educators to ensure everyone with the critical job of teaching and caring for Washougal students earns enough to support themselves and their own families. Washougal students deserve the freedom to pursue their dreams, and district leaders need to invest in resources to support students, (an effort) which includes recruiting and retaining quality staff members who work with kids every day.”

The union members will continue to work under the terms of the previous two-year contract, which expired at the end of the 2021-22 school year, until a new agreement is reached, Bennett said.

Washougal School Superintendent Mary Templeton told the Post-Record that the district and the union “have scheduled (negotiation) sessions this week.”

“Things are moving forward, and we’re progressing,” she said on Monday, Aug. 29. “We are still meeting, and we have planned time for that. We know we’ve got smart people on both sides of the table, that we are a team, and we’re going to continue to have our best intent and have constructive conversations as we move forward. We’ve had much agreement on many things, and we continue to talk about a few items that we need to conclude. I anticipate that we will find a conclusion fairly quickly and move forward as a team.”

The union members are seeking a 5.5% cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) while the district is offering a 4% raise, according to Bennett.

“While some progress has been made with some tentative agreements (in other areas), we have been disappointed,” Bennett said during a Washougal School Board meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 23. “Battle Ground, Hockinson, Ridgefield, Evergreen, Vancouver and Camas (district teachers) have, at a minimum, received a 5.5% (increase) to their salaries, and many of them received another percent on top of that — I think Camas was 6.5%. Yet Washougal continues to offer less than what other educators (are receiving). I’m sad that we’re beginning the school year with a message from the district effectively stating we deserve less than the other teachers in our county.”

Templeton declined to confirm that the COLA issue is a sticking point in the negotiations.

“There are numerous things that (the two sides are) discussing — you’re discussing language and you’re discussing compensation,” she said. “Those are both normal and typical. Some items have been finalized, and there’s still some that are not finalized, including salaries.

“We will continue to talk to them, they will talk to us, we will express what it is that we’re interested in, they’ll express what they’re interested in, and we will find together a way to move forward. Clearly, when a contract gets settled, both parties (should) consider (it) to be a win-win, so that’s our focal point, and that’s how we’re moving forward.”

The Washington State government’s 2022 supplemental budget earmarks funds to provide K-12 educators with 5.5% COLAs, which “are added to the amount the state provides to employers for staffing,” according to the Washington Education Association (WEA) website, which states that local unions “will need to bargain to have these amounts included in their contracts.”

The COLAs are structured to help educators keep pace with long-term inflation as designated by the Implicit Price Deflator (IPD), according to the WEA website, which states that a 5.5% increase for 2022-23 “will bring salaries in line with IPD over the last five years.”

Scott Rainey, a history teacher at Jemtegaard Middle School and WAE building representative, said the district is also declining to guarantee that the agreed-upon COLA rate will remain in place for the 2023-34 school year.

“Most districts have that carry-over, and we’re looking at 4% and no carry-over. It’s like, ‘Ehhhh, what are you doing? I mean, come on,'” Rainey said. “I don’t really know what the sticking point is. I don’t quite get it. I don’t understand the holdup. I’m a huge fan of Mary Templeton. I have a lot of respect for her and a lot of confidence in her, and I think that the folks on the school board are good people, and I really want to believe that their reasoning is sound, but I just don’t understand it.”

“In years past, we went, like, almost a whole year without a contract — actually, an entire year without a contract,” Rainey continued. “And so basically, they were able to pay us on, and handle everything, by the old contract. No one wants to see that happen, and I’m sure no one wants to strike, either. I mean, good grief. We just want to get back to school and get rolling. (That would) be a lousy way to start the year, obviously, but on the other hand, it’s like, come on. The other districts are doing this. And the really frustrating part of it is that I have seen (no explanation from the district). The state is allocating the money. Why aren’t you passing it down the line the way it’s supposed to be?”

Washougal High School drama teacher Kelly Gregersen said that the continued stalemate “weighs” on him.

“I’m here with a slightly heavy heart,” Gregersen said during the Aug. 23 school board meeting. “Even though I am incredibly excited for the beginning of the school year, I’m just hoping to go in with a completely non-heavy heart. … I don’t want us to be the district at the bottom. I want us to be the district who is treating their teachers in the same way that all of our neighboring districts have (treated their teachers). Many have not only given the 5.5%, but even more. Most of the districts have also agreed to extend that to the next year as well.

“I am coming here just hoping that I can start the year with the rainbows and unicorns that were mentioned earlier, and with the knowledge that we are doing the same for our teachers as the rest of the (school districts in the) county.”

Templeton, however, said the district does value its teachers, pointing to the “market rate” salaries that its teachers have received in previous years.

“We had a goal and we reached that goal — we want to make sure that we were at market rate for our salaries for teachers, and we are,” she said. “In fact, they’re among the highest paid in the region. We’re proud of that, and we will continue to make sure that our teachers are valued, and that they understand that there’s a tremendous amount of responsibility for all of us in this organization because we are seeing our district rise, and that’s going to take all of us.”

During the Aug. 23 meeting, Washougal resident Wendi Moose called for district leaders to give the union members what they are seeking.

“I’m pissed off,” she said. “In the Vancouver School District, where I’m a teacher, we got 7.5%. Washougal teachers deserve better. Don’t just say that you appreciate teachers. Show them you appreciate teachers. You know better. And I’m sorry to take this tone with you, but you know better. And you know what? All of the teachers in the room right now, if they don’t give you what you need, you go on strike. Thank you, I’m done, and give them what they want.”

The two sides’ 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.

A similar action doesn’t appear imminent this time around, however.

“When we got to the strike a few years ago, it was a laborious process to get there. I mean, we were talking about it the springtime before, or even winter before,” Rainey said. “In my opinion, I think that any call to strike right now would be met with a lot of resistance from the members because we haven’t had a lot of (discussion about it). There’s not been any communication, I guess, as far as where we’re going with this.

“I’m a union guy through and through, and I’ll do whatever my union wants to do, but certainly that’s a real drastic move, and I don’t know that we’d have quite the community support that we did last time around. Although I don’t know — it depends on how you sell it. It’s like, ‘Come on. The state is giving us the money. Why is the district doing this?'”