Tentative teacher contract not strong enough in race equity, some educators say

by Carolyn Bick

Despite reaching a tentative agreement with the district Friday night, educators could still vote to strike. Teachers will meet to discuss the agreement Friday evening, Sept. 7, and vote on the agreement the next day.

The agreement’s centerpiece is a 10.5 percent raise for all full-time staffers and hourly employees, which, though better than the original 3 percent raise the district originally proposed, still isn’t enough, Garfield High School and union representative Jesse Hagopian said.

Seattle has the third most expensive housing in the U.S. and is ranked sixth most expensive in the nation for cost of living. Many teachers, Hagopian said, are forced to rent rooms from someone else or live far outside the city.

“I have one colleague who commutes two hours every day from Tacoma,” Hagopian said. “Depending on the traffic, sometimes, it can be more than that.”

But despite the burgeoning cost of living, teachers make between $50,600 and $100,800. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s annual Out of Reach report on housing costs, a resident would need to earn $75,120 to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Seattle without being rent-burdened.

Following the state Supreme Court’s decision in the January 2017 case of McCleary, et. al. v. the State of Washington, the legislature set aside $2 billion for the state’s teachers’ salaries. Of this money, the district received $45 million, much of which was meant to go towards teacher pay.

“Educators … know that they can’t afford to live in the city, even with the 10.5 [percent increase, and that state allocated 15 percent wage increases, and we should get that entire amount,” Hagopian said. “I think that there’s a whole lot of other teachers who agree with us, and know that we deserve that much, but also know that this is the deal the union leadership is willing to organize for, and so that’s a difficult position.”

A 10.5 percent increase would put Seattle’s teachers’ pay between $55,913 and $111,384, leaving many on the lower end unable to afford Seattle’s high housing costs.

Seattle Education Association President Phyllis Campano said that 10.5 percent is the amount the district can afford without putting itself in the red, based on the language in the McCleary decision that also lowered the amount the district may take from local levies to use for educational expenses. Before the decision, the district took about 40 percent for educational expenses. However, it may now only take 24 percent. Seattle Public Schools cannot afford to give teachers a 15 percent raise, without putting itself in the red.

With the new contract negotiations throughout the state, some cities in surrounding areas with lower costs of living now pay their teachers more or just slightly less than Seattle does. In Shoreline, for instance, teachers received a 24 percent raise, making their base pay $62,088, with a maximum pay of $120,234. Edmond’s teachers now make a base pay of $62,688, and a maximum pay of $114,272.

Seattle Public Schools (SPS) representatives did not respond to follow-up questions before publication time.

A low pay rate leads to a high rate of teacher turnover, Hagopian said, because they are choosing to leave Seattle for other Washington cities with lower costs of living and higher pay. Teacher attrition also means fewer teachers of color — and in South Seattle, which is more ethnically diverse than North Seattle, this is a problem, Hagopian said.

Studies show that when a Black student has one Black teacher in their entire K-through-12 career, it increases their chances for graduating,” Hagopian said.

Hagopian also said the district is losing substitute teachers under the current contract’s language, which he said is inequitable. Substitutes currently do not get healthcare benefits, unless they teach the exact same class for 60 days.

“If you teach 59 days in one Spanish class, and then get switched across the hall to French, you don’t qualify for healthcare, even though you worked 60 days in that school,” Hagopian said. “We are losing talented substitute teachers, and that means that when teachers call in sick, no one shows up, and those kids miss out on instruction, which is detrimental overall.”

The agreement allows for a little more flexibility on that front: substitute teachers must teach for 45 days in the same building to get healthcare. The agreement also allows substitutes to accrue one day of sick leave for every 20 days of work, after they work at least 90 days, offers substitutes paid summertime professional development courses and half-day paid orientation training, and other new benefits.

In initial contract negotiations, teachers also called for stronger, more comprehensive district-supported racial equity programs, in particular, ethnic studies and restorative justice programs. The district agreed to only a few, including creating racial equity teams for at least 10 more schools.

While the expansion of racial equity teams into more schools is a plus, and will bring the number up from 42 schools to 52 schools that have racial equity teams, Cleveland High School teacher and building representative Lauren Ware Stark said, the district will not provide funding for racial equity team professional development within those schools.

“One of the challenges with the current policy of expanding 10 additional teams is that if it doesn’t come with additional support and funding for additional support and professional development, we don’t know how well those new teams will be supported,” Ware Stark said.

Seattle Education Association’s Marquita Prinzing, who heads up the association’s Center for Race and Equity, said in an email there will continue to be four Saturday trainings for new teams, and one to two Saturday trainings for all teams. However, she confirmed that there is no system that provides on-site training.

The agreement also requires the creation of a district Joint Committee to review racial equity strategies “such as Community Schools, Restorative Justice, recommendations from the African American Male Advisory Committee, and Flight Schools.” The committee must be ready to make recommendations by the end of the 2019-2020 school year. The agreement also commits to continue training in implicit bias.

Hagopian said this is not enough and that the district should have solidly committed to ethnic studies classes and restorative justice programs.

Hagopian teaches ethnic studies at Garfield High School, and said ethnic studies should be integrated into what he said both educators and students see as Eurocentric history and social studies classes. In 2017, the King County NAACP proposed adding ethnic studies to the district’s curricula, with the eventual goal of a standalone ethnic studies class throughout Seattle’s schools by 2020. This would involve hiring a coordinator to introduce ethnic studies into every school, funding appropriate learning material, and training educators to teach ethnic studies classes.

In an earlier email to the Emerald, SPS said that it piloted ethnic studies curricula across six district schools this past school year.

“Seattle Public Schools has established an ethnic studies program manager position in its curriculum and instruction department,” the email read. “This position will facilitate building the ethnic studies curriculum, oversee professional development, and work in partnership with the Seattle Education Association and communities of color to ensure authenticity of content.”

In initial negotiations, the union also asked the district to pilot a restorative justice program at several schools, which has been instituted in both Rainier Beach High School and Cleveland STEM High School. The program has been “wildly successful,” Hagopian said, citing a drop in suspension rates. But the money comes from a grant, he said, which means the program’s future is uncertain.

“We want the district to actually support that effort, expand it, and institutionalize it, and not have it be based on grant money that could disappear,” Hagopian said. “That should be expanded to other schools, especially South End schools, that could have similar experiences of not only reducing suspension and expulsion rates, but creating happier and healthier students who are more able to deal with the trauma that they face in their life, and have healthy relationships with their peers and other educators.”

He said that schools at which the program is piloted would get a restorative justice counselor, who would work with the students.

In its earlier email to the Emerald, SPS representatives said that it is the district’s “responsibility to deliver what students need to be successful and racial equity centers our school-based work. Restorative justice is one approach to addressing and supporting student success.”

The union also asked that the district hire more school counselors to reduce the ratio of students to counselors from 400 students to one counselor to 250 students to one counselor, which is the national professional standard. In the agreement, the district reduced the ratio to 375 student to one counselor, which isn’t enough, Campano said.

“We will be back at the table next year fighting for more. That is one of the biggest areas that we feel like lowers the opportunity gap for kids is counselors –– one of the many things,” Campano said. “We definitely need to change that.”

Because the school year has already started, Ware Stark said she suspects many of her colleagues will vote for the agreement, despite its pitfalls. But Hagopian and Ware Stark said they will vote no on the new agreement and vote to strike, instead.

Even though they both acknowledged there may not be enough no votes to strike, Hagopian remains hopeful. After all, he said, if accepted, the new contract would only be for one year, and teachers’ strikes in states like Oklahoma forced politicians to take their demands into account.

“I think now is the time to build an all-out struggle, and I think it’s time to learn from the red states, and not only narrowly bargain around what’s possible, but change what’s possible by showing the collective power of striking and struggle,” Hagopian said.

The official vote will take place Saturday, Sept. 8.

Featured Image: Students entered Rainier Beach High School Wednesday morning through a gauntlet of high-fives. School started with a tentative contract agreement, but the vote comes Saturday. Some teachers still intend to vote no. (Photo: Susan Fried)

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