Teachers, educators and support staff who work at Seattle Public Schools (SPS) voted to strike, as negotiations over a new contract ground to a halt, delaying the start of the new school year.
Members of the Seattle Education Association (SEA), the union representing approximately 6,000 SPS workers, began the voting process to authorize the strike on Sept. 1, the day after the last contract expired. On Sept. 6, SEA President Jennifer Matter announced that 95 percent of educators voted to approve the strike, with a 75 percent turnout.
According to a spokesperson from SEA on Sept. 2, serious disputes remain around student support, workload, caseload and class size, as well as compensation.
Of particular concern is the pay for paraeducators and office staff, which Matter said starts at just over $19 an hour.
The Seattle labor dispute comes as Kent School District teachers enter the third week of their own strike.
According to SPS Assistant Superintendent of Public Affairs Beverly Redmond, administrators argued that SEA had delayed negotiations, presenting their first proposal on Aug. 2. The district also sent emails to parents acknowledging the potential impacts on students and families if the school term is delayed and promising to clarify further how student meals, childcare and other needs will be affected.
In statements to the press and emails to parents, SPS has said that it offered SEA the option of legal mediation, which the union declined. The district also said that it proposed a memorandum of understanding in which the union would promise not to strike in order to not delay the start of the school year, which SEA also declined.
Meanwhile, SEA wrote on Twitter that SPS has canceled multiple bargaining sessions over the Labor Day weekend. The union has called on community members to write to the district in support of their bargaining demands and plans to hold pickets throughout the city.
Matter told KIRO 7 that the proposed memorandum was a “distraction” from reaching a tentative agreement. In 2015, SEA went on its first strike in 30 years, delaying the start of classes by five days and winning notable changes, including an end to the practice of using standardized tests to evaluate teacher performance.
“The district has put forward proposals which essentially are, you know, takeaways,” Matter said.
Matter said SPS proposals have included reductions in the amount of time teachers have to work, more restrictions on when staff can take leave and limitations on the ability of educators to participate in the governance of their schools. Matter also said that the proposal would reduce staffing and increase the workload for special education and multilingual teachers.
According to Matter, the district saved $64 million in surplus money that could have been used to support staff and students during the 2021-2022 school year, which she says was the worst ever so far.
“If you look back at their spending data from the last seven years, every year [SPS] did not spend as much as they projected they would spend and saved money, but most notably, this school year that just ended,” Matter said.
“That’s like the most egregious of all insults. Because again, this past year was the hardest and yet they just made money off of us,” she said.
One of the major points of contention between SPS and SEA is the implementation of an inclusion model of education for students with disabilities and students with learning difficulties, which would combine special and general education together in the same classrooms instead of separating them.
Meta-analyses of dozens of studies published in the past few years have found that inclusive special education improves outcomes for both students with and without learning difficulties. In 2019, the Washington Office for the Superintendent of Public Instruction began transitioning public schools toward inclusive special education models.
While both SPS and SEA agree to the need for inclusive special education, SPS wants to implement the model on a faster timetable. SEA has said that it wants guarantees that the district will provide additional training, maintain or improve staffing levels and not increase workloads for educators in the transition toward the inclusion model.
Sara Taylor, a special education teacher at Jane Addams Middle School and SEA member, said that in her five years of teaching special education at the district, she has been assigned more students than her caseload dictated.
“We agree that inclusion is something that’s really important,” Taylor said. “But where we differ is that we really need to see accountability, training and specifics for our students so that they are fully supported in those classrooms.”
Taylor said that she hopes the bargaining process will result in a contract that fights against teacher burnout after the difficult years of teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are pushing for respect,” she said. “Public schools are the heart of the community — we’ve seen it — but we need to be respected.”
Read more of the Sept. 7-13, 2022 issue.