About 7,000 teachers on strike in Western Washington; 120,000 students affected

SEATTLE -- Nearly 7,000 teachers in 11 school districts were on strike Wednesday in Washington.

Those  districts are Tacoma, Puyallup, Tukwila, Tumwater, Centralia, Stanwood-Camano, Rainier, Evergreen, Washugal, Battle Ground and Longview.

These teachers educate about 120,000 students.

Late Wednesday, striking Washougal teachers reached a tentative contract agreement with their school district. Nearly 200 Washougal teachers have been on strike since Aug. 28. Teachers will meet Thursday to take a ratification vote on the pact.

So you have to ask, with that many students and employees’ lives in the balance, why do these decisions seem to be made at the very last minute?

One reason this year is the infamous McCleary school funding decision, which resulted in legislators essentially throwing out all the old formulas and schedules that used to act as guidelines for making tweaks to teachers’ salaries.

That left districts feeling as if they were essentially starting from scratch, while looking over their shoulders to see what neighborhing districts were offering.

The result: 7,000 educators picketing for pay raises – more than at any time in state history.

Rich Wood, a spokesman for the Washington Education Association (WEA), the teachers union, calls this “totally unprecedented” and he hailed the “historic pay raises” coming in some school districts about as a result – most of them with double-digit rates of increase.

The Office of the Superintendent for Public Instructions began warning about this perfect storm last year. And some districts – including Edmonds, Lake Washington and Bellevue -- heeded them, nailing down their teacher-pay agreements well before the new school year.

But old habits die hard. And most districts did not get their negotiations fully cranked up until late summer.

Of course, that’s a strategy. Down-to-the-wire timing, is traditional, but not accidental. Negotiating teams know that pressure mounts on school districts the more parents worry about getting their kids back into classrooms.

Whatever happens, Washington has now posted some of the highest year-to-year pay hikes in the country.

In Seattle, for example, teachers negotiated a one-year contract with a 10.5 percent pay hike – on top of the 9.5 percent that they secured three years ago, after a weeklong strike. That adds up to roughly a 20 percent raise for Seattle teachers over 4 years, and it moves the starting pay for new teachers from just under $46,000 to nearly $56,000.