Peninsula teachers’ union negotiates raise to address inflation

Posted on June 30th, 2022 By:

The Peninsula Education Association is pleased with terms of its newly minted contract with Peninsula School District, according to a union representative who spoke at the June 23 school board meeting where the contract got final approval.

The three-year contract incorporates a 5.5% increase for compensation granted by the Legislature in school funding formulas. The state teachers’ union had lobbied for the increase to bring salaries in line with recent inflation, according to Julie Popper of the Washington Education Association.

The Peninsula teachers’ contract also calls for smaller class sizes in early elementary and secondary grades, and reduced caseloads for education specialists, among a host of other concessions.

“I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge the process and how we came to this contract that was put before you tonight,” said PEA rep Marci Cummings-Cohoe. “Together, PEA and the district leadership worked to create a fair and reasonable contract for the next three years. We appreciate the collaborative nature of the bargaining process.”

Student Aliyah Myhre helps her teacher Rashelle Pratz with the daily calendar on Nov. 22, 2021, the first day of classes at the newly constructed Artondale Elementary School building. Teachers moved classroom materials over the past two weekends to be ready for the students’ move from the old Artondale

Student Aliyah Myhre helps her teacher Rashelle Pratz with the daily calendar on Nov. 22, 2021, the first day of classes at the newly constructed Artondale Elementary School building. Peninsula School District teachers agreed on a contract that will increase the total amount the district will spend for their pay in the upcoming school year by about 6.3%. Christina T Henry / Gig Harbor Now

Cummings-Cohoe said the union entered bargaining with “a long list of demands.” The union surveyed its members and supplied district leaders with data on their responses. Members also took part in “listening sessions” with the district.

“District leadership met with us with open minds and listened to our members’ requests,” Cummings-Cohoe said. “We appreciate that our district leaders worked alongside of us listening to the feedback and were thoughtful to the negotiation process.”

The new contract was ratified by more than 96 percent of PEA members. But negotiations weren’t all sunshine and roses.

Teachers air complaints

The tone was different at the May 26 school board meeting, at which teachers lined up to sound off on high class sizes and low pay. Although the board doesn’t play a role in negotiations (except to give final approval to contracts), meetings (which are recorded) provide a public record of comments and complaints.

PEA President Carol Rivera (who was out of town for the June meeting) started May 26 by praising the district’s willingness “to listen, collaborate and problem solve.” But she went on say Peninsula is not competitive with surrounding districts, contributing to a high turnover rate.

“Areas we need more action include recruiting and retaining highly qualified staff. Our turnover is unacceptable. One in six of our staff is new to PSD this year,” Rivera said. “There are many reasons for this. Let’s start with workload. The district continues to ask more of staff, and it seems like common sense, but when you add something new, shouldn’t you take something away?”

High turnover explained

Teacher Beth Stitt said she and her husband David, who also teaches in the district, had considered leaving after doing the math on potential pay elsewhere.

“Dave and I figured out that by crossing the bridge to Tacoma, our combined income would be $30,950.09 more next fall,” she said. The amount would help the couple pay for their oldest daughter’s college tuition.

Kindergarten teacher Kelli Willson sets up her classroom at the new Swift Water Elementary School in Gig Harbor on Aug. 19, 2021.

Kindergarten teacher Kelli Willson sets up her classroom last fall at the new Swift Water Elementary School. Besides a pay raise, a new contract reduces class sizes in early elementary and secondary grades, and decreases caseloads for education specialists. Christina T Henry / Gig Harbor Now

“Dave and I have to weigh our choices carefully,” Stitt said. “But I can tell you what our co-workers did. They’re gone. We love this district. We chose this district. We are invested in this district, but stop making excuses for paying us less.”

Many who spoke described unrelenting burnout. One speech teacher said she has a caseload of 45 students when most of her peers in other districts average 30.

“Tired and exhausted are common adjectives we often hear about teachers in the media,” said teacher Nicole Holsather-Nelson. “While in many cases it’s true that we are on the verge of burnout, these words of fatigue obscure larger issues. We are stretched too thin and wear too many hats. Often teachers do not have access to the respect and support we need, and keep finding things added to our plates while simultaneously being reminded to take time for self-care.”

How much more will teachers get?

Although money from the Legislature is earmarked for school salaries, the district was not required to automatically give a 5.5% pay increase. In Peninsula’s case, that was subject to bargaining under terms of the teachers’ contract. The district agreed to give the union the full 5.5% increase for school salaries allocated by the Legislature. That doesn’t mean each teacher will get exactly 5.5 percent more. The base and top salaries on the current scale were increased by 5.5 percent. At the same time, the contract calls for reducing over three years the number of steps on the salary schedule from 25 to 20.

The base under the new contract is $56,958. The top of the scale is $114,547. In three years, the top of the scale will drop to $110,997, which is now step 20. The district has equalized step increases in between the first step and step 20 to factor in the 5.5 percent increase in state allocations.

Karen Anderson, the district’s chief financial officer, said that because of how salaries were equalized across the pay scale, the total amount the district will spend for teachers’ pay in the upcoming school year amounts to a roughly 6.3% increase.

What else is in the contract?

The new contract includes additional compensation:
• For teachers whose classes exceed the contract’s teacher-student ratio
• For special education teachers to develop individualized plans for students
• For teachers who cover additional classes or work extra hours
• For deans and “instructional facilitators”

Stipends will increase for coaches and for teachers who take on additional duties like yearbook advisor or building leadership roles.
The contract calls for reduced class sizes in the transitional kindergarten program, grades K-1 and 6-12. It reduces caseloads for special education teachers, preschool teachers and speech pathologists; gives additional work days for counselors, school psychologists, nurses and special education teachers; and defines parameters for planning time among other terms.

Human Resources Director Caroline Antholt said, “This was a collaborative effort, and both teams worked hard to come to a consensus on a contract that honors the hard work that all our educators put in throughout the year.”