SELAH, Wash. -- Roughly 70 Selah School District employees and their supporters rallied outside the district office in Selah on Wednesday morning in the latest act of solidarity among Yakima Valley educators who are negotiating with district administrators over salary increases for the upcoming school year.
Wednesday’s protest came just hours after dozens of Yakima School District employees crowded into a board of directors meeting Tuesday night to demand a higher pay increase, and roughly a week after employees with the Toppenish School District protested outside the district office in Toppenish.
Tensions between district employees and administrators are flaring over the millions of dollars being given to local school districts by the state in response to the McCleary decision, a 2012 state Supreme Court case that found Washington wasn’t adequately funding its public schools. Earlier this year, the Legislature allocated $1 billion to districts across the state for employee salaries, leaving it to districts to decide how to divvy up the money.
Some districts say the Legislature’s action in response to the McCleary decision has left them underfunded in other areas, and they can’t spend all of the additional dollars on salaries because they need to spend it on programs they’d otherwise have to cut. But employees say the extra money is for wages and the districts need to offer better pay increases, especially since some neighboring districts are getting large salary increases that could lure qualified staff away from the Valley.
“I want Selah to make our salaries competitive with other districts. I’ve been with the district for 26 years and I don’t have too many more years to retirement,” said Kari Sterns, a counselor at Selah High School who attended Wednesday’s protest. “I’d like to make as much money as I can in my last few years, but at this point ... some of these other districts have better salaries than us. I certainly don’t want to leave our district, but I have to think of that, too.”
In the latest negotiation, the Selah School District — which is getting roughly $2 million in additional funds — offered teachers an average salary increase of 3.1 percent, but teachers are asking for an 18 percent increase, said Dawn Gunner, the secretary-treasurer of the district’s employee union.
Sterns said better pay is important when attracting new teachers, and if Selah can’t compete with neighboring districts — such as Othello, which gave its employees a 17 percent increase — it will likely have trouble finding quality candidates.
“We need young, new teachers, and if we don’t stay competitive with the rest of the Valley, they’re going to get the teachers and we’re not,” she said. “I’d like to be able to say that new teachers want to come to Selah as well.”
Superintendent Shane Backlund said the district needs to focus on coming up with a plan that’s financially sustainable over the coming years, especially since Selah will no longer be making as much money with its local property tax levy, which it relied on in the past. After the Legislature took action to comply with the McCleary decision, it capped local levies at $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value beginning in 2019.
“We have to offset those losses,” he said. “We’re going to lose $3.2 million over the next few years in local levy. We’re going to get a lot of that back (from the state) because of McCleary, but we also then fund all the things that were funded by our levy.”