by Ari Robin McKenna
While last Thursday, Aug. 25, was supposed to be the first day of school, three dozen educators from Meeker Middle School were outside of the building in the 90-degree midday heat. Passing cars on Southeast 192nd Street honked every 10–20 seconds in support of the striking educators; many of the educators wore red and held signs reading “KENT Education Assoc. ON STRIKE!”
Kent School District (KSD) and the Kent Education Association (KEA) — the local educator’s union — have yet to agree on a contract, despite the fact that union members say they first submitted their requests in May.
KEA’s principal demands are: increased support for student mental health; reduced class sizes and caseloads for educators working with students receiving special education services; and a competitive salary with neighboring districts.
Educators on-site at Meeker mentioned the bargaining process itself was rushed by KSD and that they felt KSD has attempted to reduce their concerns about student well-being to a simple request for increased pay.
Last year’s KEA representative, Scott Quinn, a librarian and a tech integration specialist, said, “The union came to the table with our requests in May. They [the KSD bargaining team] came back at the end of June and what they were demanding was that we give up our anti-discrimination language and anti-harassment language. When your employer cannot guarantee that you’re not going to be retaliated against if you make a complaint, or that they’re not going to provide an environment free of harassment, that’s a big problem.” Quinn added, “And they wanted us to give up the right to our cost of living increase.”
Mike McBernie, an eighth-grade science teacher who also provides English language support, is the current Meeker KEA co-representative. He says bargaining didn’t begin in earnest until the beginning of August. McBernie quipped, “Lo and behold, negotiating a 150-page labor contract takes more than three weeks. We were ready to go before May, and the district just didn’t want to talk. They told us they were tired … it feels like they’re trying to play hardball with us here presenting things at the last minute.”
Darryn Hewson, the KEA librarian rep, indicated educators are unified at this historical moment. He pointed to the 95% of educators who voted to strike and the overwhelming majority of educators who voted no confidence in the Kent School Board and superintendent. He also said that all 43 KSD buildings had teachers protesting out front — with some reporting educator turnout between 95% and 100%.
Asked for comment about this strike on the first day of school and KEA’s principal demands, KSD directed the South Seattle Emerald to the statements actively being posted on their update page. KSD’s Aug. 24 entry says, “We are deeply committed to recruiting and retaining a high-quality workforce that serves to equip every student to be globally competitive in college, careers, and in life.” The update also stipulates that high school sports programs will be continuing, but that “All elementary and middle school activities will be postponed until further notice.”
On Saturday, Aug. 27, on their update page, KSD published a detailed description of proposed educator pay which includes a 6.3% salary increase. They also briefly mention “other offers” which include substitute “pay, recruitment, and training,” “additional paid professional development days for counselors, nurses, and behavior interventionists,” and “Special Education caseload supports.”
Today, Aug. 29, is the third day of the strike, and an agreement has not yet been reached.
Educators’ Motivation for Striking
The Emerald asked some Meeker Middle School educators about their personal motivation for striking. While some mentioned fair pay, across the board, all pointed to an improved student experience.
Jessica Pringle, an eighth-grade English language arts teacher at Meeker Middle School, had only this to share: “The biggest thing that I want to make sure that people know is we’re fighting for the mental health of our kids. It’s not just about pay and salary; this is for our kids.”
“The students that I work with all come from a rough home life, and they all have a variety of different disabilities, including behavior disabilities, emotional disabilities. I have students who have explosive anger disorder, they have different levels of ADHD, they have oppositional defiance disorder, all variety of different things.
“We are striking because we want a fair contract. We’re looking for more supports in the classroom — specifically for special education. We have been neglected here in the Kent School District for the past several years. It’s been slowly taking a decline. Our caseloads are at overcapacity. And we don’t have the support that we need to service our students and follow their IEPs.
“I want more support for special education so that we as teachers can better support our students and give them the services that they need and deserve.”—April Moon, special education teacher in the School Adjustment Program at Meeker Middle School
“I’m here for special education which is one of our [KEA] big three asks. I think that all of our asks can be intertwined. KSD likes to focus on the money portion, but the money brings in better therapists, it brings in para-educators, it brings in special education teachers, it brings in all the resources that makes those classrooms function in special education. One hand feeds the other. If you want success, if you want success for students who have individualized education plans (IEPs), 504 plans, or any of the special education supports, you need to have staff to successfully execute that. To have that you need to entice people to want to come. They’re going to leave if they’re not feeling that they’re paid fairly.
“Specifically, I would like our caseloads to be lower. That would really help because right now I have to see big groups of students, and if I could see fewer students, it would make their therapy that much better — a more effective experience. That requires you to hire more therapists. And we don’t get a fund for materials. I have to buy my own. Thankfully I’m married, but what about the single people? They have to pay their own bills and then get their own materials too? It’s expensive.”—Carrie Hamre, speech therapist at various schools in Kent School District
“The reason I’m out here is to be in solidarity with all the other teachers, with the concept of the union and what that stands for. More specifically, I’m out here because it seems like as a group we are not satisfied with the terms of the upcoming contract that the district has put out. I’m here for more money but also for more resources for the students. More mental health help and resources, smaller classes … everything that every teacher wants. I think that’s why we’re all out here … just to see that we get some of those.
“One thing I would like to see improved is more funding to access hands-on activities, electives, allowing kids to go on field trips, being able to bring people into the school and have assemblies, and just bringing more engaging activities into the schools so the kids will want to be in class and want to show up to school.”—Larson Washington, culinary arts teacher at Meeker Middle School
“The reason I’m here today is because I think my students deserve better than what they’re getting right now. There are a lot of different areas within the district that we can improve to better support our students. Class sizes can be better managed so that teachers can have more quality time with each child that’s in their classroom, and the kids can get the help that they need. Another one is mental health. We definitely need more support staff, behavior interventions, counselors, speech therapists, occupational therapists to support our students in a more well-rounded way. I feel because a lot of our support staff are here [at Meeker Middle School] for just an hour or two a day, they’re not able to fully provide the services that they’re hired for to our students.
“I’ve had classes with overload the first three years I’ve been here, anywhere from 31 to 35. And there was a point where I’ve even had 40 to start the year off with. I did not have enough chairs or desks in my classroom, and so kids were sitting on the floor, sharing chairs. That’s not a way to have a class.
“I think class sizes are a really big problem because there’s only one adult in a core English class. Not having a table and chairs is one thing, but also we have one hour together, and to be able to meet the needs and support each individual student of mine to the best of my ability … 40 is way too much. That’s impossible. That’s a personal experience I’ve had with the overload.
“I’ve also had students with a lot of mental health issues after this COVID year and I’m not certified to be a counselor. I don’t know the right way to have specific conversations if a student is having mental health issues, or anxiety, or feeling suicidal. Feeling like I have to be able to say the right thing to them and help them with those mental issues is a lot of burden on me, but also I feel like the students aren’t getting the help that they need from an English teacher. They actually need to go see a counselor. So that’s another issue that I’ve seen more recently this last year. We need a lot more mental health advocates and specialists in our schools.
“We are here to strike to bring awareness to the issues that the Kent School District has been having for a while, and have our voices heard, and in a way we are striking for our students so that their voices are heard as well.”—Kathy Lee, seventh-grade English language arts teacher at Meeker Middle School
Editors’ Note: Meeker Middle School is located in Renton. This story previously said the school was located in Kent but has been corrected. This story was also updated to correctly attribute quotes to Scott Quinn and Mike McBernie.
📸 Featured Image: Meeker Middle School educators and staff went on strike on Thursday, Aug. 25. (Photo: Ari Robin McKenna)
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