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Teaching Profession

Districts Swamped by Cost of Hard-Fought Teacher Contracts

By Daarel Burnette II — April 26, 2019 7 min read
Striking Tacoma teachers listen to a fellow demonstrator prior to a march and rally in 2018 in Tacoma, Wash.

Amid the teacher strikes and activism that roiled the nation last fall, school districts in California, Colorado, and Washington signed labor contracts they now say they cannot afford.

In order to avoid budget deficits as a result of negotiated increases in teacher salaries and overall school spending, administrators in districts as large as Los Angeles and as small as Puyallup, Wash., say they will have to lay off hundreds of teachers and central office staff, increase class sizes, shutter after-school programs, and take other actions they warn will have devastating academic effects for years to come.

Such moves, announced during emotionally charged board meetings in recent weeks as districts craft their budgets for next school year, have sparked infighting and sour feelings as teachers, staff, and administrators trade blame for the financial fallout.

Puyallup Superintendent Timothy Yeomans warned in a tersely worded statement to community members that hundreds of employees will be laid off in the coming months as a direct result of the recently negotiated contract.

“This can be difficult when the reality is not a message anyone wants to hear,” he said. “We communicated clearly last September that this would be our reality, and we are facing it now.”

Administrators are blaming the severity of this year’s round of layoffs partly on union leaders who they say did not believe them when they warned that their demands for increased pay and lower class sizes would ultimately break the budget. Some have also criticized state lawmakers for failing to rescue them.

Teacher activists say administrators are lying to the public about their budget scenarios, pitting them against their colleagues and hiding pockets of cash in order to protect central office jobs and administrators’ high pay.

Taxpayer groups and anti-union groups have accused district administrators on blogs and in public forums of being poor stewards of public money.

Feeling the Effects

The impacts are immediate and severe in some cases.

Denver has laid off more than 150 central office staff positions to free up more than $17 million to pay for teacher pay raises negotiated in February.

Several districts across Washington state that experienced strikes last fall, including Puyallup, Spokane, and Tacoma, are hoping the state’s legislature will restructure its taxes to provide millions more in local revenue to avoid looming budget cuts. The issue was still unresolved as of late last week.

Student activists in Oakland, Calif., walked out of class and packed a school board meeting in March to protest more than $22 million in budget cuts, the result of a negotiation that ended a days-long teacher strike in February.

A county audit in Los Angeles says that the district risks insolvency after it signed a contract to end a six-day strike in January. That district will ask voters this June to raise their taxes by $500 million annually for 12 years to bail them out.

And the district in Sacramento, Calif., is at risk of state takeover because of a teachers’ union contract it signed in 2017 that has left it financially insolvent.

While the spats over the impact teacher strikes will have on budget cuts have been especially acute in recent weeks, experts say district administrators across the country frequently overpromise at the negotiation table because of a confluence of factors including the bad timing of negotiation season, the fluidity of districts’ budgets, and mistrust at the bargaining table.

In addition, teacher strikes, a more frequent tactic in the last two years amid widespread agreement that teachers are underpaid, can have devastating academic and financial consequences for districts. Administrators often scramble to do everything in their power to end them.

“Sometimes, the ultimate goal is to get the teachers back into the classroom where the kids are,” said Todd A. DeMitchell, an education professor at the University of New Hampshire who once negotiated as a district administrator and now studies teacher negotiations. “You have kids that are not in school, and parents are upset and so they go to politicians and say, ‘Get something done. I can’t take off work to deal with this.’”

While both sides are typically asked to price out pay increases and other costs, those close to recent negotiations say teacher unions are increasingly distrustful of administrators’ cost calculations.

“The issue of trust is central to any type of collective bargaining agreement,” said DeMitchell.

Compounding the problem, districts are projecting out costs over the next several years and attempting to factor in several unpredictable scenarios: A district could suddenly lose thousands of students over the summer, or a governor’s budget request could be rejected by the legislature, for example.

And negotiation season often takes place before the legislative session is over with and before districts have a good sense of how much money they’re going to get from the state.

Devil in the Details

In order to end a years-long school funding court case, Washington’s legislature last year upended its tax structure to provide more than $2 billion in additional funding for schools. In the process, lawmakers scrapped the statewide pay scale for teachers, forcing every district last fall to renegotiate their contracts.

The surge of cash from the state, coupled with wall-to-wall local media coverage of the court case, amped up teachers’ expectations in negotiations, teachers and district administrators concede. But district administrators told teachers during negotiations last year that while the financial scenario looks healthy now, districts lose millions of dollars when the state caps local tax revenue this summer.

Teachers accused administrators of lying and denying teachers what they deserve. In 13 districts, they went on strike, delaying the start of the 2018-19 school year for several days

“Our pay had fallen far behind other states despite our booming [local] economy with Boeing, Starbucks, and Amazon, so the need for pay raises was very real,” said Rich Wood, a spokesman for the Washington Education Association, the state’s teachers’ union. “We spent years and years and years talking about teacher pay raises, and it was finally time to pay up.”

In order to end those strikes, administrators ceded to many of the teachers’ demands, in hopes that the legislature this spring would provide them with more relief. But, as of last week, that relief has yet to come. Spokane’s district, according to local media reports, will have to lay off one out of every 12 employees. In Puyallup, where administrators say they will have to lay off 120 teachers, the teachers union this month handed to the board a vote of no confidence in the superintendent.

“We can do the math,” said Karen McNamara, the Puyallup teachers’ union president who argues the cuts could come from other parts of the budget. “We went after just what our district had been given. We didn’t want to bankrupt our district. We wanted to be given what our district had been given for us.”

In Los Angeles, the negotiations in January had come to a standstill when district administrators said they couldn’t afford to meet teachers’ demands to increase pay by six percent, decrease class sizes, and add more services for students such as health and mental health.

Teachers pointed to the last several years when district leaders bragged to the public about a $1.8 billion surplus and a savings account that amounted to another $1 billion. But district leaders cited audits that said because of declining student enrollment and skyrocketing pension costs, the district faced a fiscal cliff in coming years.

Teachers went on strike for more than six days, drawing nationwide attention. The district eventually gave in and provided much of what teachers had demanded, amounting to more than $800 million in increased costs. In order to make ends meet, district leaders have begged the governor to lower the district’s pension costs, and also decided to go to voters to ask for an increase in parcel taxes in June.

If the ballot measure fails—it requires more than two-thirds approval rating—the 600,000-student district says it will have to lay off hundreds of employees and increase class sizes.

Business Pushes Back

The district is now being blasted by the business community.

In a brochure to be mailed to residents next month, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce says: “District bureaucrats and defenders of the failed status quo want taxpayers to bail out a school district with a history of red ink, appalling education results, declining enrollment, runaway administrative hiring and exploding retirement and health care costs.”

The bad blood from such contentious deals and subsequent layoffs can linger for years, said DeMitchell, the contract negotiation expert. Day-to-day working conditions can becomes more strenuous, and trust further eroded.

“If you gave away money you don’t have,” he said, “that’s not a good bargain.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2019 edition of Education Week as Districts Swamped by Cost of Hard-Fought Teacher Contracts


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