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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Teachers overcome concerns to narrowly approve new union contract with Spokane Public Schools

The Spokane Public Schools district office at Main Avenue and Bernard Street is seen Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Despite concerns about student discipline, larger class sizes and other working conditions, Spokane teachers narrowly approved a new three-year contract Tuesday night.

Only a simple majority was needed for passage, and it barely got that.

After an hourlong meeting in the Shadle Park High School gym, members of the Spokane Education Association voted 385 to 334, or 53.5% to 46.5%, to approve a tentative deal reached 10 days earlier.

The contract is expected to be finalized Wednesday night by the Spokane Public Schools board.

Tuesday’s vote capped months of start-and-stop negotiations that culminated in a tentative agreement reached on Sept. 28. The contract covers all bargaining units.

“It was interesting,” SEA President Jeremy Shay said as members filed out of the gym. “But it was clear to me that it wasn’t really about salary.”

“Our members are concerned about the safety of students, they were concerned about the custodial service model that has been reduced, and they were concerned about student discipline in the buildings,” Shay said.

A year ago, in the aftermath of the McCleary decision, teachers received an average pay hike of 13.3%.

This year, teachers will receive a 1% increase for the current school year, 1.8% the following year and 2% in 2021-22.

For a teacher with 10 years’ experience and a master’s degree, last year’s salary of $77,144 would rise by $771 this year.

That doesn’t include benefits.

At the top end, teachers with 16 or more years of experience along with a master’s degree and 90-plus hours of credits earned $98,756 last year. Their salary this year will be $99,631.

Salaries account for about 85% of this year’s district budget, which totals $461.9 million. Of that, certificated salaries make up 46.6%, classified salaries 14.4% and benefits 24%.

However, salaries were almost an afterthought during Tuesday’s closed-door meeting, as membership dealt with the repercussions of heavy budget-cutting by the district to mitigate a $31 million budget deficit.

With about 100 fewer teachers to work with, the district increased class sizes in grades 4-12.

“It’s fewer people, and the workload is intense,” Shay said.

Student discipline appeared to be the biggest issue for many teachers.

Beginning this year, all districts in the state are expected to place “several new conditions and limitations on the use of suspension, expulsion and emergency expulsion,” according to state Superintendent Chris Reykdal.

Implementation hasn’t been easy, Shay implied.

“It was clear to me tonight that people have major concerns about student discipline,” Shay said. “We’re going to have to dig into that. … But I believe our district is concerned with staff and student safety as well.”

“Just because something wasn’t addressed in this ratified agreement doesn’t mean we’re going to live with something that’s unsafe for three years,” Shay said.

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019 to correct the spelling of Jeremy Shay.