by Ari Robin McKenna
Yesterday evening, in a resounding show of solidarity, 98% of the Seattle Education Association (SEA) teachers who were present at a Special Representative Assembly cast votes of no confidence in Seattle Public Schools (SPS) Superintendent Denise Juneau, Chief Human Resources Officer and Lead Negotiator Clover Codd, and Chief Financial Officer and Chief Negotiator JoLynn Berge for, “attempting to unilaterally impose new working conditions upon SEA members without completing negotiations.”
This comes in response to Friday, Feb. 26’s SPS district announcement that they would be designating certain teachers “essential workers” as a way to circumvent the safety concerns of their union bargaining partners, and a day after Governor Inslee’s announcement that all Washington teachers are now eligible to be vaccinated.
In a recent interview with the Emerald, Jennifer Matter, SEA president, described the essential worker designation as part of a pattern of bad faith bargaining by the district, saying the SPS administration “bargain[s] in the media, instead of at the table with us.” The union also raised questions about whether SPS could be trusted to keep their more than 50,000 students safe and consistently provide necessary materials and procedures.
In an emailed press release, the SEA stated, “Several educators currently teaching in-person report that safety protocols are being violated and they have questions about the process to prepare even with just 150 students receiving in-person learning and services.” Uti Hawkins, vice president of the Seattle Education Association, said, “Superintendent Juneau and Seattle Public Schools [have] shown a reckless and dangerous lack of transparency in readiness for students’ and staff’s health and well-being. They have lost our confidence in their ability to keep us safe and meet our students’ needs. … We need trust that SPS is putting full investment into in-person and remote needs! We want it in writing.”
A school board representative in attendance also mentioned that BIPOC community members are specifically requesting positive case data be made available on the district website and a communication plan put in place so families are not left wondering about the safety of their child’s school.
The bargaining strategy of the district appears to hinge on courting pressure from impatient parents, because there is already a Memorandum of Understanding in place (established over the summer) that SPS will be remote through the end of the school year, pending bargaining. Yet the SEA has expressed a willingness to return if teacher, student, and community safety concerns are addressed. Matter, however, said in the statement that while the district “can claim they’ve been preparing and getting all this ready, we haven’t seen it at the bargaining table.”
The district’s bargaining strategy appears to be backfiring, as a recent Pew Research National Survey shows that the majority of Americans favor waiting to reopen until teachers who want to be vaccinated are able to. This study also shows that this opinion is even more common with BIPOC families and those who leaned Democrat, with 51% of white people taking this stance, 69% of Hispanics, 72% of Asians, and 80% of Black respondents. Additionally, 79% of those who lean left, politically, responded similarly in favor of waiting to reopen.
With Biden’s recent prioritization of educators to receive the vaccine and COVID-19 rates plummeting in the past month, BIPOC communities with significantly higher rates of both cases and deaths are justifiably concerned.
Without a strong Center for Race and Equity (CRE) presence on the SEA bargaining team (CRE Director Marquita Prinzing is on personal leave), there have been questions about how centered the concerns of BIPOC families, educators, and staff have been. Many BIPOC families, such as those at Campbell Hill Elementary School in the Renton School District, have expressed concern about the rush to return to in-class learning before more of the population is vaccinated. In last night’s statement, SEA seemed to indicate that they intend to address those concerns: “Educators are committed to holding the district accountable for the safety and equity needs of SPS students and families. SEA is prepared to take further action as needed to protect our school communities.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article included a percentage that was three points off. We updated 95% to 98% in the first sentence, “Yesterday evening, in a resounding show of solidarity …” The article also stated that Marquita Prinzing was on medical leave when in fact she is on personal leave — the Emerald apologizes for the mistake.
Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, NY; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, WA before settling in Dunlap (just north of Rainier Beach). He writes about education for the South Seattle Emerald. You can contact him through his website.
Featured Image: Handwashing station at South Shore PreK-8 school. (Photo: Ari McKenna)
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