School was supposed to start in Puyallup and Tukwila Wednesday, but teachers have gone on strike after failing to reach contract agreements.
The Washington Education Association said almost 6,000 educators are on strike in nine Western Washington school districts, including in Centralia and Tumwater.
Tacoma faces a possible strike as well, after more than 2,000 educators voted to authorize a strike if no deal is reached by Thursday.
Districts across the state have been bargaining over pay increases after the legislature injected more state funds into public education. Some districts, including Bellevue, Bainbridge Island and Edmonds, have agreed to double-digit raises, with teacher salaries in Edmonds now ranging from $62,688 to $114,272.
Nate Bowling is a high school civics teacher in Tacoma and the 2016 Washington teacher of the year. He said Tacoma risks falling behind the region. Under last year’s pay scale, teacher salaries in Tacoma ranged from $45,500 to $90,928.
“I’m not going to vote to accept a contract that puts us below the average pay of our neighboring districts, because if we do that then young teachers rightfully are going to flee our district,” he said. “The most important factor impacting student achievement within the school day is teacher quality and if we have an exodus of teachers from Tacoma because we’re being cheap, that’s a shame and that’s going to harm our kids.”
Elsewhere in Pierce County, the Bethel School District agreed to a new salary schedule for teachers that lifts starting pay to $52,550 and pay at the top of the scale to $102,722. The average teacher salary is increasing by almost 13 percent.
The Tacoma school district has said it was disproportionately harmed by the state’s new education funding system. Lawmakers raised the state property tax but set a limit on the amount of local tax dollars districts can raise.
This spring, the legislature approved a one-time amount of $12 million specifically for Tacoma schools to help mitigate those impacts.
“That was a one-time allocation to help us avoid budget cuts this school year due to the reduction in our local levy,” Tacoma Public Schools spokesman Dan Voelpel said in an email. “It's not money that can be spent on recurring costs, such as salaries.”
Tacoma Education Association President Angel Morton said the union believes that money is intended for teacher salaries to keep Tacoma schools competitive with nearby districts.
On Tuesday evening, members of the Tacoma Education Association streamed into Mount Tahoma High School for their general membership meeting, many wearing red – a color that symbolizes teacher solidarity.
Charmaine Norton is a language arts teacher at Jason Lee Middle School. She also has four children in Tacoma schools.
“If the district doesn’t come through to show that they appreciate what we’re doing for our future, it will break the hearts – I know it’s currently breaking the hearts of all of us,” she said.
About 97 percent of teachers at the meeting voted to authorize a strike. Morton said the two sides are set to bargain again on Wednesday.