(Updated at 4:00 pm on Sept. 6, 2018, to add comments from Evelyn Cook, a middle school teacher in Tacoma, and Tacoma Public Schools spokesman Dan Voelpel.)
The first day of school in Tacoma was canceled on Thursday because teachers and other school staff in the state’s fourth-biggest district went on strike.
That comes after the district and the Tacoma Education Association failed to reach an agreement over salary increases for the coming school year. Members of the union voted by about 97 percent to authorize a strike Tuesday evening.
“My members want to be doing what they do best, which is educating kids, but until the school district quits blocking the salary increase that the legislature granted us and the Supreme Court backed up, we can’t do that and that breaks our hearts,” said Tacoma Education Association President Angel Morton.
The walkout in Tacoma adds to an already tumultuous start to the school year. Teachers in the Tukwila, Puyallup, Centralia, Tumwater, Stanwood-Camano, Battle Ground, Evergreen and Longview districts are also out on strike. The state legislature adopted a new education-funding system and added almost $1 billion for educator salaries this past spring to satisfy the McCleary school-funding lawsuit.
Some districts agreed to sizeable pay increases for teachers. In Auburn, the school district hiked pay by 11 percent this school year, with salaries ranging from $54,277 to $108,166. Earlier this week, Tacoma put forth a proposal that would set starting pay at $49,769 and compensation at the top of the scale at $100,778.
Evelyn Cook is an eighth grade language arts teacher at Baker Middle School in Tacoma. She said Tacoma needs to keep salaries competitive with nearby districts.
"If Tacoma becomes the lowest paid school district, we will not keep quality educators here," she said. "We will become a revolving door district."
Tacoma Public Schools acknowledged the disruption for parents and shared information on its web site about child care organizations. The district said all students can receive free breakfast and lunch at 12 schools in the district.
“We are sorry that this uncertainty so close to the start of school is stressful and creates a hardship for you and your families,” the district said in a statement. “The district negotiating team is working hard to reach a fair agreement with the Tacoma Education Association as quickly as possible.”
Tacoma Superintendent Carla Santorno has argued that the district was disproportionately hurt by the state's new funding system. Lawmakers raised the state property tax but set a limit on local tax dollars that districts can raise. Santorno has said that that will lead to a budget deficit in the 2019-2020 school year.
"We absolutely believe our teachers deserve the same increases that are being seen across the state, we just can't afford to pay it," said Dan Voelpel, a spokesman for Tacoma Public Schools. "We're asking the legislature to step up when they get together in January and fix the formula."
Tacoma did receive a one-time payment of $12 million from the state that was approved in the spring legislative session to mitigate the impacts of the new system.