by Ari Robin McKenna
On Friday, Feb. 26, Seattle Public School (SPS) District leaders for the second time announced a presumptive return date for a segment of its student population — despite not having an agreement with the union that represents teachers and other staff, the Seattle Education Association (SEA).
On Dec. 5, 2020, SPS Superintendent Denise Juneau caused SEA to cry foul when she announced a recommendation that students in pre-K through first grade and students in moderate to intensive special education service pathways should return to in-person on March 1. Later in the month, the Seattle School Board unanimously voted in support of Juneau’s aspirational reopening date, and bargaining teams began in earnest to sort through the many details involved in coming to an agreement with the union. In the meantime, a vocal minority of Seattle’s parents mounted pressure on the union to accept this date as though it were a given.
Then, at around 5 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 26, the last school day before their projected reopening date of March 1, teachers were again thrown for a loop when the headline on SPS’ website read, “Students in PreK-12 Intensive Service Pathways and Preschool Students Returning In-Person March 11.” This time, the school board voted (with Brandon Hersey the lone dissenting vote) to classify staff members who work with these returning students as essential workers.
The negotiations are ongoing and will no doubt be influenced by yesterday’s announcement by Gov. Jay Inslee that all educators, school staff, and childcare workers will immediately qualify for vaccination as part of the State’s Phase 1b-1 vaccine rollout. The announcement came after the Biden administration said it anticipates it will have enough vaccines for all adults in the U.S. by the end of May and is calling on all educators in the nation to receive at least one dose of vaccine before the end of March.
In an interview with the Emerald, SEA President Jennifer Matter said, “They want to bargain in the media, instead of bargaining at the table with us.” Though the district would not respond to a series of questions from the Emerald, Tim Robinson, SPS media relations specialist, said, “During bargaining, it’s important that nothing is said publicly that might impact negotiations.” Regarding the March 1 return date announcement in December, Matter said, “[SPS] chose the earliest possible date that they thought we could conclude [bargaining], but at the same time, they didn’t communicate it that way, so they made it sound like that was the ‘done deal’ date.”
After the board approved Juneau’s phased plan and bargaining began in earnest, Matter says that in January the district assured the public they had been working on a plan for months. But the SEA for their part says that when they received the proposal, it was basic. “It was four pages long, and had almost nothing written in it about Special Education,” Matter said. When the SEA balked, SPS expanded it to 13 pages and for the first time released it to the public in late January. Then, with something to work with, the teacher’s union got busy in February drafting language for an agreement with a team largely made up of teachers sprung for two days a week from their day jobs. They expected the district would continue working on their safety proposals, and Matter says there was momentum building, and compared to where they were over the summer, “we were so close to the finish line.”
Yet, last week as the district’s initial date approached, (which coincidentally is the day their Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) report on reopening tied to federal dollars was due) Matter describes the district prematurely calling for a Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) mediator before the two sides had found a sticking point in their negotiations. Suddenly, and without explanation, mediation became the priority, and Matter says, it was used by SPS as “a signal to everybody outside of bargaining as a sign that we’re not working with them, or that we had reached some sticking point and were stuck, when the real issue is that they’re not working with us.”
Matter went further, saying that while SPS was playing games in the media, at the bargaining table it hasn’t produced. “I want people to understand,” Matter said, “the SEA bargaining team has done all the work for the district. The district can claim they’ve been preparing and getting all this ready. We haven’t seen it at the bargaining table. Instead, we’ve been doing the work that they should have been doing for the past however many months by crafting the language in the agreement that outlines what the workload expectations would be, in addition to the health and safety. … We’re doing their job. At this point, as much as it annoys the heck out of us that we have to do the job that the district is getting paid full time to do, we’ll do it because of course we want to get back into the classroom to serve students.”
After Friday’s news that some of their teachers would be declared essential workers by the district in an effort to circumvent bargaining, the union filed three unfair labor practice complaints with the state’s PERC. Matter also released this video detailing various times that both Juneau and SPS Chief Human Resources Officer Clover Codd have expressed the need to bargain for an in-person return for students. In one section, during a school board meeting on Sept. 23, Codd says, “Should the school board vote to approve a phased in-person or some sort of hybrid approach, we will need to come back together with SEA to negotiate any changed impacts of that decision to their working conditions.”
The district bargaining team has in the past been led by someone with “labor” or “negotiator” in their title, but Codd this time seems to be driving the district’s approach. Before her, Sheryl Anderson-Moore led — or co-led along with Codd — many negotiations with the title of “Chief Negotiator,” “Lead Negotiator,” or “Labor Relations.” Codd, a 10-year district veteran, has risen through the district ranks and seems to have an increasing amount of influence. When asked if the district had reorganized its bargaining team, the district did not respond by the time of publication.
From SEA’s perspective, Matter said, “SPS leadership that’s at the bargaining table, I’m afraid they’re gatekeeping information from the school board. … You have the superintendent who has one foot, if not both feet, out the door. … I think we faced a lot of challenges because they did not hire someone to be their chief negotiator.”
Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, New York; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, Washington, before settling in South Seattle. He writes about education for the Emerald. Contact him here.
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