Lachlan Willis, teacher at Risdon Middle School, outside the school district board meeting Wednesday, Aug. 8. Photos courtesy of Cami Kiel

Lachlan Willis, teacher at Risdon Middle School, outside the school district board meeting Wednesday, Aug. 8. Photos courtesy of Cami Kiel

Renton school staff, district discuss budget, salary hikes

Unions expressed initial upset and confusion money wouldn’t be going to staff

Renton School District staff, former students and parents spoke out at a rally on Aug. 8 where an estimated 300 people overflowed the Renton School Board meeting to support increased wages for Renton teachers and other school district employees.

The meeting offered a public hearing for the proposed 2018-19 school year budget. Those in attendance spoke against the budget and the proposed salary increases for teachers and other staff, which is still being negotiated by union leaders like Cami Kiel, president of the Renton Education Association.

Kiel said the McCleary Supreme Court Victory that was finalized this summer has offered the district money to invest in quality teachers, ESAs and support staff for students.

“Renton students deserve great teachers who are treated respectfully and compensated adequately, just like the students in Bellevue and Lake Washington,” Kiel said in an email.

Keeping salaries competitive with neighboring districts, such as Bellevue, was a big topic among attendees. A mother of four Renton school students and teacher-hopeful spoke at the meeting, asking that anyone look her children in the eyes if they think Bellevue district kids deserved a better education than Renton’s.

Bellevue is one of 23 districts that has finalized pay raise negotiations, according to a map from the Washington Education Association, settling on a 17.3 percent increase for teaching, or certificated, staff. Washington Education Association’s Rich Wood said the map shows settlements so far have been 12 percent or higher.

Woods said changes in state law mean there are 255 district open contracts this year, when there would normally be around 150. But having around 20 districts ratified agreements keeps negotiations where they normally would be this time of year. The big difference is they don’t usually see these big pay raises.

“Every time we go to the bargaining table, it’s work that is important,” District Spokesperson Randy Matheson said. “We want to make sure our teachers are well compensated. I don’t know if (this year) is unique, it’s just part of the work we need to do to make sure we compensate our teachers well.”

Kiel also spoke at the public hearing about frustrations with bargaining.

“This bargain has been demeaning and demoralizing and quite frankly, even though we’ve made progress at the table, I would ashamed if I were you. Ashamed for not prioritizing educators,” Kiel said. “Do the right thing.”

Late last week in an email, Kiel said “Renton teachers expect that the Renton School District administration and School Board will continue to work with the Renton Education Association to provide competitive salaries comparable to other nearby school districts.”

As of Tuesday, Aug. 14, bargaining for teachers was still ongoing, with other employee wages to be bargained after finalization with Renton Education Association, Matheson said.

“What we are doing is working hard to make sure that we’re providing a wage for our teachers that honors their work, because they are hardworking teachers, they do the work for our students and families, and we want to make sure we’re paying them a wage that makes them whole and gives them a livelihood and has them stay here in Renton. We do want all of our good teachers to stay in Renton, working at the bargaining table is part of that,” he said.

President of the Renton Professional Technical Association Jen Ben, which is one of four classified staff unions in the district, said she hopes they can start the year off well.

“We are trying to bargain in good faith and hope they see how loyal employees are and that we need an equitable and living wage,” Ben said.

Speakers at the public hearing, as well as Renton Education Support Staff union leader Janie White, district speech-language pathologist Sara Jerger and Washington Education Association Rainier Uniserv director Kristi Taylor have said the school district was offering 3.1 percent increase to staff wages.

Matheson said they have never come to the table with a 3.1 percent offer.

“That was a state-wide number that was passed out. And most bargaining units throughout the state have used it as a rally cry, but that was not a Renton School District offer,” Matheson said.

Kiel said in an email that 3.1 percent was the original offer of the school district at four different bargaining sessions, but that the district has since then moved in a positive direction.

Because bargaining is still underway at Renton, Matheson can’t present their initial offer publicly.

“I’m not clear on where 3.1 percent came from, but I know many organizations as they are working with individual school districts, have cited that as a point they believe districts are starting from. I’m not sure that’s accurate— it certainly isn’t with the Renton School District,” he said.

White said having 3.1 percent at the bargaining table is insulting. As classified staff union leader, which includes clerical, technology, paraeducator employees and other miscellaneous support staff, she said it’s sad to have to fight for the money that was already sent to the district for employees.

“I’m not sure if they think we just aren’t aware of (McCleary), but it’s kind of an insult because it’s what we do. We actually have been fighting for it,” White said. “The point is we all do math, and it just doesn’t add up.”

Other districts have offered 3.1 percent, which Woods said is basically inflation.

“While levies might be going down, the new state funding more than makes up for the reduction in levy funding. Of the billions of dollars in state funding, as least $2 billion is supposed to go to increase educator salaries,” Woods said.

At the public hearing, Susan Smith Leland, Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Support Services, presented the preliminary budget plan, saying the levy funding, which is by year and not school year, would see a hit in 2019.

Voter approved levy amounts for 2019 are over $57 million, the district will only be able to collect $35.7 million, rolling back $21.5 million in funding, Smith Leland said.

At the hearing, Kiel said while this has been frequently highlighted, what isn’t highlighted is the enormous increase in state funding that makes up for the loss of levy funding.

“The state funding is being increased by a staggering $45 million. That’s a net gain to Renton next year alone of $37.5 million,” Kiel said.

According to a League of Education Voters Foundation map, Renton School District will see an increase in state funding of 37 percent, making the total district funding increase to 20 percent.

White said in an interview that initially they requested for the district’s financial department to bring an itemized account of the money, but they didn’t come to the table with what was requested. White also said this speaking at the public hearing.

Matheson said they have been providing budgeting information at the bargaining table with Renton Education Association leadership. That association is bargaining for teachers, not classified staff that White represents.

“As we’re asked for information beyond what we present, we go back to those meetings with the information that’s being requested. We’re working to provide information that association members need to bargain and we’re bargaining in good faith with them,” Matheson said.

White emphasized that even though the negotiations are separate, certified and classified staff are standing together. Nobody wants to strike, White said, and although classified staff can’t strike, they won’t work if teachers strike since the schools will be closed.

“It’s always difficult to talk about finances because we shouldn’t be having these conversations,” White said. “We love what we do here in Renton. We’re willing to fight for it this time. This is the first time that the state has basically said, we appreciate the school employees and they deserve a raise, and now we need to get our district to feel the same way.”

The board thanked speakers at the public hearing Aug. 8, and said another hearing would be offered at the Aug. 22 school board meeting. They commended speakers hard work and commitment to the district, and said they would work with the superintendent to address the issues presented in the testimonies.

“Our intent is to get this work done, and start school on time on Aug. 29, and have our high qualified, wonderful teachers in classroom with our students,” Matheson said.

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