Tacoma teachers strike: Both sides say they're still far apart in talks over pay raises

TACOMA, Wash. -- Tacoma Public Schools will not start as planned on Thursday.

The Tacoma Education Association announced they were on strike after another day of bargaining with the school district led to no resolution Wednesday.

Both sides say they are still far apart.

“I’m a math teacher. I’m about to start my 14th year,” said Sara Ketelsen, a teacher at Lincoln High School in Tacoma.

She’ll spend Thursday, which was scheduled to be the first day of school, outside on the picket line instead of inside her classroom.

“We’re at a pretty big impasse. Our union leaders are advocating that every teacher get a raise of some kind,” said Ketelsen.

Tacoma teachers are frustrated after seeing nearby districts settle for double-digit salary increases.

“Right now my members can drive two miles and make $10,000 more,” said Angel Morton, president of the Tacoma Education Association.

Educators want a 19% increase, a number the district says they can’t meet.

“We would love to pass along double-digit increases like many other districts have. Unfortunately, we were not given the money from the state to do that,” said Dan Voelpel with Tacoma Public Schools.

He says the school district proposed adding money to what teachers earn if they were to take optional credits to their base salaries.

“There is $7 million in new money added to the salary scale, combined with what was already bargained, for a total of $18 million in salary increases for teachers. We hope that’s enough,” said Voelpel.

Ketelsen says it’s not enough and the math doesn’t add up.

“The raise the district is offering us is taking that from optional to required and calling it a raise, which means the percentage looks better but the money I take home at the end of the year is not going to change because I do my optionals every year. So, it’s not a raise,” said Ketelsen.

Tacoma teacher salaries are broken down into 14 pay scales based on education and experience.

For Ketelsen, who has earned a master’s degree plus 45 credits, entering her 14th year means she’s making around $82,000 for her total salary.

“It is comfortable, but I have a master’s degree and he does, too, and I hope that we can have a comfortable income with that much education in our family, both working full time,” said Ketelsen.

As a national board certified teacher, she earns an additional annual stipend of a few thousand dollars.

If teachers coach sports or chair departments, they can earn more money.

"I’m not asking to be paid a million dollars to do my job, but I do want to have the respect that’s owed to teachers in our district,” said Ketelsen.

She’ll have to wait to help her students solve math problems until both sides here can find the common denominator.

Through a state mediator, the teacher’s union and the district will continue bargaining on Thursday.

The school district says that the total $18 million they can give to teacher salaries this year will mean they will have to cut 415 positions from the district next year.

"Because the McCleary funding formula cuts our funding by $25 million in the 2019-2020 school year. And we have offered a contract to teachers that will cost us another $7 million. That combined $32 million deficit equates to 415 positions,” Voelpel said.