Seattle public schools canceled the first day of school Wednesday after teachers voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike over issues including pay, mental health support and staffing ratios for special education and multilingual students.
Jennifer Matter, president of the Seattle Education Association, announced Tuesday that 95% of ballots returned by union membership are in favor of going on strike, an agreement not reached with Seattle public schools. Contract negotiations continued.
“No one wants to strike,” Matter said. “But the SPS hasn’t given us a choice. We can’t go back to the way things are.”
The district said in an email to parents that it was “optimistic that bargaining teams would come up with positive solutions for students, staff and families.”
Districts across the country have faced labor challenges as the pandemic has put extraordinary pressure on teachers and students alike. An infusion of federal stimulus money has helped stabilize the school district budget, and teacher unions have sought to improve wages, resources and working conditions after a tough few years.
Bradley Mariano, assistant professor of education policy at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, said high inflation, a national teacher shortage and the goodwill earned by their pandemic-turned-school efforts are fueling the teachers’ union efforts.
“By all measures, the school budgets are looking really good right now,” Mariano said. “So teacher union contracts are expiring, they’re looking for new deals that essentially send more money to teachers and more money to students.”
School in the Seattle suburb of Kent was scheduled to open on August 25, but has been delayed because of a teachers’ strike.
Teachers in Columbus – Ohio’s largest school district – ended last weekAgreeing on a package that includes a 4% increase, includes building improvements, reduced class sizes and innovative paid vacation benefits.
In Denver, marathon bargaining sessions last week resulted in an 8.7% increase for teachers, a higher salary for first-year teachers and a temporary settlement for more funding from the district for health insurance costs.
Teachers in Minneapolis, Chicago and Sacramento moved earlier this year before securing new contracts.
In Seattle, the school district has offered an additional 1% pay increase over the 5.5% cost-of-life increase set by state lawmakers – much less than the union’s – as well as one-time bonuses for some teachers, including $2,000. Included are third-year Seattle teachers to earn an English language or dual language support.
The union says it is opposing the district’s efforts to eliminate the staffing ratio for special education students, meaning there will be more work for general education teachers and special education teachers alike. The union also says that the district’s proposals will make general education teachers more responsible for supporting multilingual students.
In a video released by the union, speech language pathologist Julie Salazar said she voted to authorize the strike because the caseload for her and other special education workers is too high.
“We can’t serve our kids well and everyone knows it,” she said.