Seattle educators are on strike Wednesday after negotiating late into the night Tuesday, with classes canceled in the state’s largest school district on what would have been the first school day of the year.
Teachers, paraprofessionals and certified teaching staff began picketing at their schools at 7:30 am and will stay on the picket lines until 3:30 pm each day until educators ratify a contract agreement, WEA said.
Teachers have been negotiating with the district for months, with leadership mainly focused on pay increases and support for special education and multilingual students. Seattle joined Kent as the only other major school district in Washington on strike at the start of the school year.
After eight days of missed classes in the Kent School District, which has an enrollment of about 25,000 students, the Kent Education Association said it reached a tentative agreement with the district early Wednesday.
Between coronavirus outbreaks, spotty school-bus service and staffing shortages, the strike is one more in a long line of school disruptions that have become commonplace since the start of the pandemic, all of which pose the biggest hardship for working-class families.
There was overwhelming support for a strike from the Seattle Education Association, which announced Tuesday that 95% of its members who voted over the weekend were in favor. SEA President Jennifer Matter said 75% of the union’s about 6,000 members voted.
Demands from SEA include maintaining staff ratios for disabled and multilingual students as the district aims to provide more services in general education classrooms, and ensuring the district provides them with interpretation and translation services in meetings with parents and on official documents.
The district, which has an enrollment of about 50,000 students, is offering a package of pay increases for SEA members, as well as substitutes.
Isaura Jiminez Guerra, an ethnic studies teacher at Cleveland High, joined about 50 other educators in front of the school Wednesday morning waving “Listen to educators” and “On strike” signs. Passing motorists honked their horns.
Jiminez Guerra said they’re on strike because paraeducators and instructional assistants are paid as little as $20 an hour, which is not sustainable. Jiminez Guerra said the district’s proposals have been vague, and that teachers are seeking concrete supports and specific terms in the contract, such as smaller teacher-to-student ratios in special education and multilingual classes.
“Families are essentially set up to be underserved under the current contract that SPS is trying to offer,” Jiminez Guerra said. “It’s essentially doubling down on the burnout of teachers and educators.”
Jenn Kekuna, an academic intervention specialist at Cleveland, said there are a number of special education positions open at the school. Special education students are often the most underserved children in school, she said.
“Teachers don’t just serve as content servers,” she said. “Half the time we are like counselors, or stand-in parents.” When teachers have to step away from the classroom to resolve an issue, it takes away from time teaching students, which is why they’re calling for more support for students.
In Seattle, a paraeducator’s base hourly pay is $19.22. Neighboring districts have higher base hourly pay for the same roles.
At Northshore School District, paraeducators make no less than $27.09 an hour. They make at least $22.54 an hour at Bellevue School District, $20.23 an hour at Lake Washington School District and $22.16 an hour at Highline Public Schools.
Otis Golden III, an instructional assistant in Rainier Beach High School’s special education program, said paying paraeducators more will increase retention and attract more people to the field. It’ll also keep them from moving to a different district or leaving the field. He noted that some fast-food restaurants are paying between $20 and $25.
“To be an educator, it takes a special person,” Golden said. “We want to try and attract those people. We want to make sure those people can stay.”
On social media, parents expressed concerns about finding child care. Others said they’re frustrated by the “last-minute” negotiations.
Michelle Kim Neubaue is a parent of a kindergartner and second-grader, and said she supports the teachers but is “furious” with the district’s communication.
“My biggest frustration with the district is how they communicate what’s happening … they also point to disagreements around the [special education] and language access programming, which horribly stigmatizes children and families that access those resources,” said Neubaue, via a direct message on Twitter.
The district said meals would be available Wednesday for students to pick up between 10 am and 1 pm at several school sites, and shared additional information on its family resources page.
On Tuesday afternoon, about 100 teachers in red union shirts gathered outside John Stanford Center, the district’s headquarters. Their mood was upbeat.
Both management and labor named special education as their major sticking point. But that explanation doesn’t square with past progress on this issue, said Samantha Fogg, who co-chairs the citywide parent-teacher organization, Seattle Council PTSA.
The most recent contract called for the creation of a special education task force containing district employees, union members and parents. For more than a year, the task force discussed ways to increase the amount of time that disabled children spend in typical classroom settings, which research shows improves academic and social outcomes for all kids. Washington state has among the worst rates of inclusion in the nation for disabled kids.
In May, the task force—which included Uti Hawkins, the union’s vice president, and Rocky Torres, who oversees special education for SPS—signed off on a set of recommendations that would guide bargaining.
They call for a phased pilot program that would introduce what’s called a “co-teaching model” to a select group of schools, a major redesign. In co-teaching, a general education and special education instructor would share a classroom, reducing the need for disabled students to be segregated in a different room.
And, concerning to educators, they suggest a move away from staffing ratios that cap the number of students assigned to each teacher for special education services. Instead, staffing would be determined by the needs of students. For example, two students may have dyslexia, but one may require more specialized attention than the other.
This change could make it easier for students to get additional support from staff members if it becomes necessary. But the absence of set staffing ratios, union leaders told members, could open the door to unmanageable caseloads and wouldn’t guarantee adequate staffing.
This tension arose because there is so much distrust on both sides, said Cherylynne Crowther, president of Seattle Special Education PTSA. And it comes at a time when the district is projecting budget cuts as it spends down its one-time pandemic relief funds.
Manuela Slye, who represented Seattle Council PTSA on the task force, said she is confused about why these issues didn’t come up earlier. The group amicably disbanded this past spring, congratulating each other on the work they did together.
“From my perspective, adult issues are getting in the way of centering students,” said Slye.
At Tuesday’s rally, Carrie Syvertsen talked about what it’s like to be the only social worker at Robert Eagle Staff Middle School, which has about 700 students. The National Association of Social Workers recommends 1 social worker for every 250 students.
Syvertsen has an active weekly caseload as well as drop-in hours for students in crisis. She often finds herself helping students overcome barriers and explaining students’ mental health needs to teachers.
While she works with counselors at the Seattle middle school to somewhat split up the work, mental health support staffing isn’t close to where it should be, she said.
“I’m really worried about staff retention and burnout,” Syvertsen said. “The district has not committed to making sure caseloads and workloads are manageable. It’s not sustainable.”
Negotiations between the SEA and Seattle school district included advocating for student-to-social-worker ratio cap and more mental health support staff, said Matter on Monday.
Making sure case loads remain manageable means giving each student the support they deserve, she said.
Increases in educator pay were also up for negotiation. The union wants the district to increase wages above the state-funded 5.5% cost of living adjustment, although Matter did not share specific dollar figures.
Since 2015 — the last time Seattle teachers went on strike — pay has gone up significantly, in part due to a school funding saga known as the McCleary decision. That state Supreme Court case forced lawmakers to pour billions of dollars into Washington’s K-12 school system, most of it going to salaries for teachers and other staff. Before McCleary, much of that pay had been funded by local school district property-tax levies; the justices said the state needed to cover the full cost.
In 2018, educators and the Seattle district signed a one-year contract that resulted in 10.5% raises. And in 2019, the Seattle union reached a three-year agreement that gave an 11.1% increase for teachers over three years, and 12.1% for classified employees, such as instructional assistants. Under the current contract, which expired last month, teachers make between $63,000 and $124,000, depending on their level of experience.
“We’re not asking for the moon,” Matter said. “We recognize we have to put forth proposals that work within the district’s budget. Everything that we put in, we know the district can afford.”
She and other union members said that raising wages across the board for office professionals, paraprofessionals, other classified employees and substitute teachers are a priority.