When Soraya Al-Khoury began teaching in the Edmonds School District seven years ago, she felt lucky to start her dream job with no student debt.
But she soon confronted the reality of working as a social-studies teacher in an increasingly expensive area: Roommates moving in with Al-Khoury and her husband. An indefinite delay in starting a family. Second jobs over the summer to make ends meet.
“I know so many teachers living paycheck to paycheck,” Al-Khoury said Tuesday after finishing a shift at this summer’s job. "They’re one car breakdown away from massive credit card debt.”
Now, thanks to a tentative agreement on higher salaries between her teachers union and the district, Al-Khoury said she expects some relief: Early this month, the Edmonds School District and its union announced a collective-bargaining deal that would offer teachers a starting pay of about $63,000, a 19 percent raise.
It’s contract negotiation season for school districts across Washington state, and your kids’ teachers could be getting a hefty raise — or they might not. The fate of their paychecks has little to do with the heart of their work: what they’re teaching kids and how.
Rather, it depends primarily on how their bosses interpret new state rules on teacher pay, with some districts agreeing to double-digit raises while others struggle to keep up. And in a state where one in five principals struggle to fill vacant classroom positions, salaries are a key tool for recruiting and retaining teachers.
Under the Edmonds deal, veteran teachers would see their maximum salary rise roughly 20 percent, and teachers who fall between either end of the pay scale will learn the exact size of their increase when the union votes on the agreement later this month.
“We don’t have all the details yet,” Al-Khoury said. “But if we’re all getting 10-15 percent raises, that’s pretty life-changing for a lot of us.”
With classes set to resume in a few weeks, teachers are starting to learn about critical changes to the way they’re paid during an unusually chaotic bargaining season. Why is teacher pay up for discussion in so many of Washington school districts this year? Many contracts statewide reopened this summer following the Legislature’s decision to pump nearly $1 billion into local school coffers to pay for more competitive salaries.
That extra money convinced the Washington Supreme Court to close the decade-old McCleary school-funding case — the justices agreed the state had finally met its constitutional obligation to cover the full cost of market wages for educators.
Historically, districts relied on local property-tax collections to pay their employees, creating wide disparities in what a teacher can make from one district to the next.
Flush with more state funding for salaries, negotiators in Bainbridge Island, Bellevue and Lake Washington have already agreed to double-digit raises. Contract talks haven’t gone as smoothly in districts like Kent, Mukilteo and Tacoma, where officials argue the state’s new funding formulas still disadvantage them.
Although Tacoma will receive more money from the state, spokesman Dan Voelpel said the district won’t see much of a net increase in its total funding after accounting for an upcoming cut to its local property-tax collections.
And while Lake Washington schools will bank a 29 percent increase in combined state and local funding, Tacoma schools will only see a 5 percent boost, according to a recent analysis of the new state budget from the nonpartisan League of Education Voters.
“Would we like to give our teachers more? Absolutely, if the Legislature would give us more to give them,” Voelpel said.
Tacoma’s negotiators have offered teachers a 3.1 percent raise, saying the Legislature’s new restrictions on collective bargaining limit increases on teacher pay to that rate. Similar lower offers have prompted teachers in Kent and Mukilteo to hold rallies this month.
So what’s the difference between what Kent and, say, Edmonds can offer teachers?
Confusion about legislative intent. The Washington Education Association, which represents teachers statewide, has disputed that lawmakers intended to cap raises for teachers at 3.1 percent. But even state Superintendent Chris Reykdal was baffled.
“You do not all agree on what you passed or what was meant by one aspect of a policy or another,” Reykdal wrote in a letter to lawmakers last month.
An opinion from the attorney general’s office may eventually help settle the confusion, a spokesman for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction suggested.
As of Wednesday, a representative from the attorney general’s office said they had not received a request to weigh in on the matter.
Meanwhile, the raises that neighboring districts offered have strained contract talks in the Puyallup School District.
Puyallup schools will receive $12,347 per student under the state’s new education budget, noted Corine Pennington, the district’s chief financial officer. In neighboring Federal Way, schools will collect $13,673 per student.
That adds up, Pennington said, to a $30 million total difference in funding for the next school year.
“Technically, there is no way we could do anything near that,” Pennington said of Edmonds’ 19 percent pay hike. Like several other districts, Puyallup is also offering an increase of 3.1 percent.
Anything more, she said, would put the district in the red. “A double-digit salary increase for the teachers? We would be out of business in a year and a half.”
Al-Khoury, the Edmonds teacher, doesn’t buy that line. She sympathized with teachers still waiting on their districts’ contracts. And she credited Edmonds for meeting her union halfway.
“Some districts just are not bargaining in good faith,” Al-Khoury said. “They’re essentially treating educators like we don’t know what we’re talking about.”