Washington State Teachers Support 'Multilocal' Strike

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More than half of the 50,000 members of the Washington Education Association have voted to authorize a strike if the state legislature does not adequately address teachers' concerns in its current session.

The state's 300 union locals have been polling their members since the beginning of the year to gauge support for a "multilocal" strike.The voting concluded with the March 12 decision by Seattle teachers to authorize a strike.

According to union officials, the local presidents plan to meet April 13 to decide whether to call the job action.

By then, both the House and Senate are expected to have finished work on their budgets, giving union leaders a clearer picture of how much education funding they can expect.

Teacher discontent in the state has been building for the past two years, fueled by concerns over salaries and the increasing demands being placed on districts by the state's booming growth.

Union leaders have contended that teachers' salaries have slipped in relation to salaries paid to teachers in other states, while the cost of living in urban areas has skyrocketed.

At the same time, the state's growth has produced budget surpluses that some teachers believe also should be spent on reducing class size, buying new equipment for schools, and building new facilities.

Gov. Booth Gardner has chosen to maintain a substantial "rainy-day reserve" fund to offset the soaring costs of the growth, which has driven up spending for social programs.

At the same time, he has proposed an overhaul of the state education ,system that would abandon the traditional system of grades, grade levels, and high-school diplomas. (See Education Week, Jan. 9, 1991.)

Revised Revenue Forecast

Revised forecasts released last week showed that the state expects to take in an additional $226 million in revenue over what had been predicted earlier, but the Governor did not recommend putting any of the increase into teachers' salaries.

Instead, Mr. Gardner proposed putting $33 million into the reserve fund,restoring $68 million in higher-education cuts, and spending $36 million more on human-services programs. Included in the Governor's revised budget was $55 million to improve health benefits for public employees, including teachers.

"That's some improvement in the approach," said Carla Nuxoll, president of the W.E.A. "But whether it's enough is another question."

She noted that a teacher with two years' experience and a master's degree is paid $35,000, while beginning teachers earn $20,000.

It was unclear last week whether legislative leaders will propose spending any of the money on education.

Geographic Split

The results of the union voting, in which 26,000 teachers in 70 locals voted in favor of striking, generally split along geographic lines. Teachers in the Puget Sound region in the western part of the state, where the majority of the population boom has occurred, were much more likely than their counterparts in smaller, rural districts in eastern Washington to favor striking.

A strike "looms as a real possibility," said Reese Lindquist, president of the Seattle Education Association. "The people who voted to go out are determined."

In Spokane, where the cost of living is much less expensive than in Seattle, teachers "are angry, but not to the boiling point," according to Lynda Hayashi, president of the union local.

"We perceive the situation as a long-term problem that no kind of quick fix is really going to address," Ms. Hayashi said.

In addition to larger salary in creases than the 4.4 percent and 3.8 percent the Governor has proposed for the 1992-93 biennium, the W.E.A. is seeking a reduction in class size, improved retirement benefits for teachers, an increase in the percent age of total state revenue spent on education, and a greater role for teachers in restructuring education.

Ms. Nuxoll said the W.E.A. supports the Governor's emphasis on reducing state regulation of education, but pointed out that the reform legislation does not include money to train district personnel to use the new types of student assessments essential to its success.

"There hasn't been enough teacher input," said Cheryl Brown, president of the Central Kitsap Education Association. "They're sitting up in the state legislature and designing bills without touching bases with practitioners in the field, which is the whole point." Teachers are not alone in calling for more money for education.

Judith Billings, the state superintendent of public instruction, has proposed spending $622 million more on education than Mr. Gardner has advocated. The superintendent's budget proposal includes $415 million for salary increases for school employees, in contrast to the Governor's $287-million request.

Salary Study

Although union leaders stress that teachers' concerns go far beyond their own pocketbooks, the is sue of teacher salaries has loomed large in the state for months.

Washington teachers had made an issue of the fact that their salaries had dropped in ranking from 5th in the nation to 23rd, based on information gathered by the National Education Association.

Last summer, the W.E.A., leaders of the House and Senate, the education department, and the state budget office agreed to hire a San Francisco firm to study the salary issue.

The study, released last month, found that Washington teachers ranked 12th in the nation in total compensation in the current academic year.

The study took into account the value of benefits paid to teachers and compensation for extracurricular activities, such as coaching.

When teachers' "regularly scheduled contract salaries" alone were taken into account, they fell to 20th place among the 50 states and the District of Columbia for the same year.

Ms. Nuxoll said the association from the start had "real problems with the data" used for the survey, which examined 1,465 districts across the nation. The consulting firm is tabulating results from an additional 40 districts.

"That study is severely flawed," Ms. Nuxoll said, adding that the association has protested its methodology.The results, however, have been perceived in some quarters as weakening teachers' claims.

"It does seem to have hurt the union's credibility to be involved in a study and choose a consultant, and then, when it comes back with answers they don't like, to try to undercut those answers," said Mary McKnew, an executive policy assistant to Governor Gardner.

Both the Washington State P.T.A. and the Washington Association of School Administrators, while supportive of increasing education funding, have taken positions against teacher strikes.

Vol. 10, Issue 27, Page 05

Published in Print: March 27, 1991, as Washington State Teachers Support 'Multilocal' Strike
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