Three weeks ago, Jeremy Shay was prepping his science classroom for the first day of school at Ferris High School, just as he’d done for the last dozen years.
Then came the call from Katy Henry, president of the Spokane Education Association. She offered Shay her congratulations.
“What for?” asked Shay, who learned that Henry was resigning and that he was now in charge of the state’s largest teachers’ union east of the Cascades.
That’s a full-time job, which means that for at least the next three years, Shay will be out of the classroom and in the negotiating room.
“That was quite a shock,” said Shay, formerly the SEA vice president.
The timing wasn’t ideal, as the SEA is in the midst of contract talks with Spokane Public Schools.
However, Shay knows the drill. He’s worked alongside Henry and the SEA team for several years, “finding a way to advocate for teachers, staff and students.”
Henry is still in the same building but works with the Washington Education Association.
The SEA did well for teachers last year, negotiating a 13.2% average wage hike in the wake of the McCleary decision. However, that was long overdue, Shay said.
“People look at the percentage and say, ‘Wow, that’s a lot in one year,’ ” Shay said. “But they don’t look at the year after year of no (cost-of-living adjustment) raises.”
A year later, the climate has changed. Districts, including Spokane, are cutting budgets and staff while increasing class sizes at the upper grades.
Closed-door negotiations are ongoing, with the main talking points being class size, combination classes and new state rules on disciplining students.
Teachers can expect COLA raises along with step increases, but no more during the length of the new contract.
Even that isn’t a given, though contracts typically run three years.
“I think we both have an interest in having a long-term deal, but there are a lot of moving parts,” Shay said.
One of them – the addition of information technology employees to the SEA umbrella – has pushed back the next general membership meeting to Oct. 8, and it’s unclear when a contract will be signed.
“We had to write a new contract from scratch for the IT employees, and the district needed to read it – we just needed more time,” Shay said of the delay.
“There’s a lot of work to do,” Shay said.
Some issues are out of the union’s hands.
In declaring a budget emergency last spring, the district also suspended workload provisions for teachers and other staff. That means a class could theoretically have 40 students.
That won’t happen, Shay said, because “it’s (the district’s) goal to stay as close as possible” to reasonable numbers.
The district has already tried to address the issue of class sizes and combination classes by drawing down on its reserves.
“The smaller we can be, the better,” said Shay, who applies the same logic to recent cuts in custodial and nutrition staff.
Shay knows that from experience. Raised in Spokane, he attended Indian Trail Elementary, Salk Middle School and North Central High School, where he met his future wife.
Graduating in 1998, he went on to earn a teaching degree at Whitworth University. In 12 years at Ferris, he taught math, physics and biology while serving as a building representative for the SEA.
As vice president, Shay still worked full time as a teacher. Now he’s in an office in northeast Spokane.
“I think Spokane’s a great place, and I think we do a great job of teaching kids,” Shay said. “I love teaching, but I also like working with contracts.”
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