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Yakima School District employees vote to strike as pay impasse continues

By Alec Regimbal Yakima Herald-Republic

Hundreds of Yakima School District employees may not be in schools when classes start on Monday.

That’s because members of the Yakima Education Association, the district’s largest employee union, voted Tuesday to go on strike unless administrators offer them a better pay increase for the upcoming school year. More than 800 union members voted almost unanimously to strike for the first time in more than 25 years. The association represents teachers and other certified staff.

“This will send a message that our members support what we’ve been asking for at the bargaining table, and that if the district isn’t going to do the right thing, then school’s not going to start on time,” said Steve McKenna, the president of the Yakima Education Association. “We’re not going to settle for less, it’s that simple.”

Teachers and other employees in the Valley’s biggest school district – which serves slightly more than 16,000 students – are unhappy with salary increases administrators are offering. The union says the district was given about $10.3 million by the state to allocate toward pay increases for the 2018-19 school year, but McKenna said the district indicated it would only offer about $4 million toward salaries during a recent contract negotiation.

“Our mission isn’t to strike, it’s to get a fair settlement,” McKenna said. “We don’t want to strike, but we’re not going to let them take $6 million from us.”

District administrators say they spent $6 million more on salaries for the 2017-18 school year than budgeted. They front-loaded the additional $6 million toward salaries last year to stay competitive with other districts, they say.

Additionally, with the money districts are getting from the state for salaries this year – which the Legislature says districts ultimately have control over – administrators say they need to budget that money responsibly. They say they’ll lose millions in revenue once the state-imposed cap on local property-tax levies goes into effect next year.

“Our intent is to have school on Monday,” said Superintendent Jack Irion. “It’s our hope that we’ll work through the process and come up with a resolution that both sides support.”

Right now, the district collects a little more than $3 per $1,000 of assessed property value from its local levy. It uses that money to pay for such things as school nurses, transportation, athletics, school safety officers and all-day kindergarten. All local levies in the state will be capped at $1.50 per $1,000 starting in 2019.

With the district’s levy revenue being cut in half next year, administrators said they can’t give employees the full $10.3 million because they need to use some of that money to fund what local levy dollars now pay for.

The feud isn’t unique to the Yakima School District. Employees across the state are seeking millions of dollars being given to school districts for the upcoming school year because of the Legislature’s response to the McCleary decision, a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling that found the state was failing to adequately fund K-12 education.

Members of the Selah School District employee union considered striking, but decided against it Monday after union leaders explained that the process for getting the Washington Education Association – the state’s largest school employee representative – to support their strike is a somewhat lengthy process. McKenna said he completed that process, which involves paperwork and training, earlier this month.

Not even an hour after Tuesday’s vote, dozens of employees and their supporters crammed into a monthly board of directors meeting to express their displeasure with how the district has handled negotiations. During public comment sessions, several attendees urged administrators to allocate the full $10.3 million to salaries.

The board was scheduled to officially adopt the district’s 2018-19 budget during Tuesday’s meeting – it’s legally required to do so by Aug. 31 – but two board members said they were unfamiliar with recent changes made to the budget and said they would abstain from voting. Those comments – made by board members Raymond Navarro Jr. and Don Davis Jr. – were met with cheers and applause from the audience.

The next contract negotiation between district administrators and union representatives is scheduled for Wednesday.

An emergency board meeting to approve the budget is scheduled for Tuesday.

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