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September 4, 2013 at 1:08 PM
Seattle Schools contract dispute a lesson in alienating parents
I was among the tens of thousands of Seattle parents breathing a sign of relief this morning as the first bell rang and schoolhouse doors opened. My daughter, a 2nd-grader, gave me a hug and high-five, oblivious that, a day before, the Seattle Education Association was voting on deadline to accept or reject a new two-year contract with Seattle Public Schools.
From a parent’s perspective, it is beyond frustrating that something as vital as the start of the school year was uncertain until yesterday. If the contract, say, expired on July 31, rather than Aug. 31, a teachers union and district could do deadline negotiations without impacting kids, or parents. A vote the day before school may be good for leverage at the bargaining table. But it alienates parents, forced to wait until the last minute to learn if we’d need emergency back-up plans for our kids.
This dispute was also frustrating because it didn’t appear to involve strikeable issues. The final contract reflects reasonable concessions: a 6.3 percent total increase in pay over two years backfilled recent sacrifices by educators, while the school district got back 30 minutes cut from the elementary school day in the 1970s after levy failures.
The dispute also hung on the Seattle Schools’ teacher-evaluation system, which had been bargained for in the previous contract. Last spring, I heard from union officials that this ground-breaking system was a reason for the Legislature to not pass the so-called “mutual consent” bill, which would have given school principals power to block transfers of supposedly poor-performing teacher. But it re-emerged as a key issue in negotiations, with the union seeking to limit use of some standardized test scores in evaluations. The final deal, again, found a middle ground, reflecting that it wasn’t really a make-or-break issue.
Earlier this summer, I heard an education reform advocate suggest that it was impossible for a student to get a consistently high-quality education in the Seattle Schools district. Maybe a great elementary experience, or middle school or high school, but sooner or later a parent would have to turn to private schooling.
Seattle schools have a buffet of high-quality offerings — from alternative to advanced-placement to immersion-language instruction in Japanese, Mandarin and Spanish (my daughter is in a Japanese immersion class) — that are drawing parents back into the district. Seattle Times news columnist Danny Westneat made that point in a column last week, noting booming enrollment and rising test scores, in his plea to avert a strike.
“Our schools spent decades in a slump of stagnant enrollment, marred by constant bureaucratic bungling. We have tons of work to do but are on the way to making news for an entirely different reason: for being the big-city schools turnaround-success story in America. Please don’t mess that story up.”
It shouldn’t have come to a last-minute potential strike.