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September 3, 2013 at 8:10 PM

Seattle teachers OK contract; school starts tomorrow

Seattle teachers approved a new two-year contract Tuesday, ending contentious  negotiations that raised the possibility of a strike, one that would have been the first in this city in decades.

The new contract was approved by a show of hands at Benaroya Hall with about 1,500 of the district’s 3,000 teachers in attendance.

The vote paved the way for school to open on time Wednesday, even as many young students probably went to bed Tuesday night without knowing for sure whether they would be going to class in the morning.

The majority of teachers decided the district’s offer was good enough, with a two percent raise for the 2013-14 school year 2.5 percent the year after, and compromises on a number of issues, including the use of test scores in judging how well teachers do their jobs.

“I trust their work,” Eckstein Middle School teacher Kristin Bailey-Fogerty said before the vote, referring to the teachers’ bargaining team.

“There isn’t anything in the proposal that’s worth a rejection vote.”

But there was a significant minority, too, who wanted the union to go back to the bargaining table.

“They threw us a couple of bones, but we’re hungrier than that,” Noam Gundle, a Ballard science teacher, said before the vote.

In a meeting Monday, where union representatives from each school voted on whether to recommend the contract to their colleagues, the result was a tie.  Jonathan Knapp, the union’s president, cast the final vote in favor of approval.

For the dissenting teachers, one big issue was the use of test scores in evaluations, something the union wanted to suspend for two years given the number of changes that are coming up, including new state tests and new state laws regarding how teachers’ work should be judged. The district acknowledged that changes are on the horizon, but didn’t want to stop using test scores in the meantime.  As it stands now, test scores aren’t an official part of a teachers’ evaluations, but if their students aren’t making enough progress, that can trigger a closer look at their performance.

The union and the school district reached the tentative agreement early Sunday after a week in which teachers raised the possibility of a strike.  They had rejected one contract offer from the district, and teachers held informational pickets as negotiators returned to the bargaining table.  They ended up with an agreement that struck some middle ground on pay raises, increased the length of elementary teachers’ workday and keeps test scores as part of how teacher job performance is evaluated.

Union leaders said that the pay increases are the biggest that teachers have received in five years.  By some counts, the new contract will keep Seattle as one of the top paid districts in the Puget Sound area, although some teachers also point out that their expenses are higher here, too.

The new contract also extends the required work day of elementary-school teachers by 30 minutes, putting them on par with their middle- and high-school colleagues.  The compromise was how they use that time, with teachers retaining a lot of flexibility in deciding how to spend it.

The agreement also calls for the district to work toward setting limits for the caseloads for school psychologists and occupational and physical therapists, and a pledge to add more such school employees.  And it includes a new system for special education in Seattle, which both sides hope will bring improvement to services that have drawn considerable criticism from parents and the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The district earlier had withdrawn a proposal that union leaders had said was the most problematic – one that would have raised the number of students who could be in classes from grades 4-12.

Two other groups of school employees also approved new contracts, too – the paraprofessionals such as classroom aides, and school secretaries.

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