May 5, 2011

the context of the Olympia School District RIF

As announced yesterday, the Olympia School District is planning to send RIF notices to the 48 least senior teachers in the district.

To understand why, it's important to know a little bit about how teachers get paid here in Washington.

In the Evergreen state, your standard teacher's paycheck comes primarily from state coffers--and, more specifically, from sales tax receipts. Districts receive allocations based on student enrollment, divvied into FTEs--Full Time Equivalencies. Cut state funds, and you have two choices: shorten the school year, or cut teaching positions. (Or both? Don't say both.)

When the Great Recession tanked Washington's economy, sales tax collections tanked as well. Now, with the gap between will and way sitting somewhere near $5 billion in the coming biennium, the Legislature, at least until this point, has refused to consider new revenue sources by closing tax loopholes*, or--horrors!--raising taxes. (If anything, the recent $263 million boon from Sales Tax Amnesty proved that the state isn't yet entirely competent at collecting the taxes we're already supposed to get.)

Word is now coming from Governor Gregoire that she'll support closing the gap with a 1.9% pay cut for teachers--purportedly to keep things in line with the cuts other state employees have taken.  Fair is fair, right?

Not exactly. As The Olympian's Brad Shannon writes,
The House and Senate are negotiating daily during a 30-day special session on the 2011-13 operating budget, and the pay cut has left the chambers at odds. The House took a different approach, suspending COLAs and saving almost $57 million more by cutting “step” pay increases granted each year to teachers, based on their years of service and educational attainment.

House Education Appropriations Committee chairwoman Kathy Haigh, D-Shelton, has said she would prefer to shorten the school year so that teachers would work and earn less – while avoiding the sticky problem of having rich districts cough up money to avert the pay cuts while poor districts cut pay.
Other state employees have received furlough days commensurate with their salary reductions--but the Legislature finds itself in a bit of a constitutional mess, knowing that the state's mandated "paramount duty" is to fund public education, which seemingly prohibits shortening the school year, currently 180 days. Learning Improvement days can disappear--and they're gone--but school days are sacred.

Gregoire's accommodation is at least better than the Senate plan, which would not only eliminate the LID, but cut an additional 3%. Hats off to local rep Chris Reykdal, a former teacher who gets what's at stake.
Reykdal, a freshman who has been out-front among Democratic lawmakers this year in trying to raise new revenue by closing a few tax breaks, said there is a fairness issue for teachers. While the Senate wants additional 3 percent pay cuts to match the 3 percent pay reductions Gov. Chris Gregoire has negotiated with many public employee unions, Reykdal said the general-government cuts are accompanied by an equivalent amount of extra time off for workers.

“So our unit cost didn’t change” per day worked, Reykdal said. In the Senate plan, he said teachers see it as a cut in pay with the same workload.
And it is.

The rumble around the lunch table doesn't yet involve serious talk of strikes or walkouts or Work-to-the-Contract days or Wellness Walks, but if the Legislature foists its fiscal decisions onto local districts, abdicating its responsibility and leaving teachers in the lurch, you can bet that the rumble will turn into a roar.

* But that may soon change.

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