A year after La Center teachers were some of the only in Clark County to avoid a strike, teachers have voted 75-1 to strike if a new contract isn’t reached by the first day of school on Aug. 28.
The teachers voted on Thursday and started informational picketing Friday. The next bargaining session between the union and district is scheduled for Tuesday.
“The issue is the McCleary money,” said Dale Folkerts, spokesman for Washington Education Association. “It’s the same issue as last year where a lot of districts were trying to deny they had money from the state to spend on salary. Last year, the district took administrators at their word.”
The McCleary legislation saw the state pour $7.3 billion in new state funding for schools to be spread over four years, followed by another $1 billion for teacher salaries. Prior to the 2018-2019 school year, the La Center teachers signed a contract that gave them a 6.8 percent increase in total salary compensation, bumped up to 7.8 percent for those who have been employed by the district for 25 years or longer.
Denelle Eiesland, president of the La Center Education Association, said the union spent much of the year researching the budget, and members decided they felt like the district wasn’t offering all the salary money allocated by the state. In a poll conducted by the union this past school year, 30 percent of teachers said if something didn’t change this year, they’d start looking for jobs elsewhere.
“Our teachers want to work in La Center,” said Kathy Bounds, past president of the teachers union and lead bargainer this summer. “They’re torn by working in a district they love to work in or doing what’s right by their family.”
Neither district officials nor union officials were pleased with how McCleary shook out for La Center. During this past school year, Bounds told The Columbian that “we could’ve gotten our members to strike, but for what? What was on the table was what was on the table.”
Bounds said La Center teachers are the lowest paid in the county, and they want to close that gap. She said that she has taught in La Center for 26 years, and if she worked at Woodland Public Schools, the district with the second-lowest pay, she’d make close to $8,000 more. The difference would be $18,000 if Bounds were to work in Camas, she said.
“We understand that La Center has low industry in regards to levy dollars,” she said. “We would like to just be close. Maybe we’ll still be the lowest-paid teachers in Clark County.”
Peter Rosenkranz, assistant superintendent, said Monday afternoon the two sides are talking about a new contract that would see top-end teachers in the district earn $90,393 per year.
One unique issue La Center is facing is staff experience. Rosenkranz said the district was allocated $69,129 per teacher from the state, which is less than what most experienced teachers make. He said La Center has a longer-tenured faculty than most districts; more than half of La Center’s teachers earn more than that average.
“Our money does not go as far as a district with less-experienced teachers,” he said.
Another issue union members are citing with the district comes from the proposed 2019-2020 budget, which projects the reserve fund to grow. According to a presentation made to the school board, the district will go into the year with a fund balance of $1.81 million and end the year with a fund balance of $1.88 million.
Bounds said that at last year’s bargaining, she checked with the district that everything allocated toward salaries was what the district was offering.
“That just wasn’t the case,” she said.
Rosenkranz said the district will transfer $665,740 this year to make up more money for salaries. That money will come from various places, including the maintenance fund and some other programs, although details are not final.
He also said having a healthy general fund balance is good for the district’s bond rating. District voters passed a $48 million bond measure in February 2018 to build a new middle school. Rosenkranz said the fund balance partly works as a savings account for the district, with money left in there to use for one-time expenses or in case emergencies pop up.
“Being frugal or conservative with our spending, there are times we chose not to purchase something,” he said. “We’re a government agency working with taxpayer money. We want to make sure we do it right.”