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Seattle teachers approve new contract

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Photo by Elaine Thompson / AP
Photo by Elaine Thompson / AP

Seattle teachers and paraprofessionals approved a new contract in a September 19 vote, allowing schools to open after a five-day strike.

The Seattle Education Association (SEA) represents some 6,000 teachers, social workers, counselors, and other support staff employed by Seattle Public Schools. According to the union, 71% of classroom teachers voted to approve the new contract; paraprofessionals voted 66% in favor, and office staff voted 82% in favor.

"It was beautiful to see what we can all do together in solidarity," Uti Hawkins, SEA vice president and lead contract negotiator, said at a September 20 press conference. "It was a very, very clear message to Seattle Public School leadership that they need to be part of the conversation in the community, and they need to come to listen."

Photo courtesy of SEA  

SEA members went on strike September 7 — what would have been the first day of the new school term — and agreed to suspend the strike after a tentative agreement was reached with the school district. Students were able to start school on September 14.

"We want to let you know that it was a struggle," Hawkins said. "There was a definite fight to retain our worker's rights, as well as ensure that the supports for our students that we know are necessary — coming off of some of the most difficult years of a lifetime — need to be in place."

A major point of contention was how to integrate special education students into general education classes. Washington has one of the lowest rates of inclusion in the nation, and research shows more inclusionary practices improve academic outcomes for all students. 

The union successfully pushed for more classroom support staff to make that possible. Special ed students will now be placed in general education classrooms for most of the day, SEA leaders say.

"We're talking about inclusive education, and that's big," said Cherylynne Crowther, president of the Seattle Special Education PTSA. "That's a first step, and there's a lot that goes into understanding and awareness of what inclusive education can look like."

"What you see in our contract is the rolling out of different inclusion policies around special education," Hawkins added. "The rolling out of some of these things will be over time."

Pay increases were also an issue in the contact negotiations. Under the new contract, the school district will increase pay 7% for both teachers and professional staff. In the second year of the contract, members would receive a 4% salary increase for inflation and 3% the following year. If the state funds a higher inflationary adjustment, union members will receive whichever is greater.

Jennifer Matter, SEA president, said Seattle wages are just now catching up to salaries in nearby districts.

"That was our main goal with this bargain — to make sure that we are competitive but also trying to have a living wage," she said.

The contract will cost the district about $228 million over three years and is predicted to add almost $92 million to projected budget shortfalls. Options to cover the shortfall reportedly include dipping into the school district's rainy-day funds or using federal pandemic relief money.

"This is not unusual, especially for government organizations," Vivian van Gelder director of advocacy and policy for the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition, told the Seattle Times. "But usually there is always something on the horizon that will likely fix [budget shortfalls]."