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Contract will raise district teacher salaries

The Vashon Island School Board is expected to approve the teachers’ contract tomorrow evening, providing the island’s public school teachers with an 8 percent raise over three years that administrators say will help Vashon remain competitive with nearby districts.

By approving the contract, which covers the district’s roughly 100 teachers librarians and counselors, the board will commit the district to paying an additional $175,000 in salaries this school year and increasing to $465,000 by the third year, said Michael Soltman, the district’s superintendent.

The raises are essential for the island to recruit and retain the best teachers, Soltman added.

“Parents demand the best,” he said. “If we really mean it, we have to be competitive.”

The district has had difficulty drawing new teachers, particularly in math and science, Soltman noted. Vashon pays between 8 and 12 percent less than comparable districts, such as Seattle, Tukwila and Snoqualmie, he said.

The state sets a base salary for teachers, and districts set salaries above and beyond that for extra time and responsibility. Vashon pays roughly 13 percent above that base pay, Soltman said, while other districts pay as much as 22 percent above the state-set base.

In 2011, the state Legislature cut teachers’ salaries for two years by 1.9 percent. The state has restored those cuts, and with the passage of the contract, the district’s teachers will receive raises beyond that of 3 percent this year, 3 percent next year and 2 percent the third year.

These raises are in line with those at other districts, Soltman added.

Indeed, The Seattle Times recently reported that teachers there approved a two-year contract that will provide a 2 percent increase this year, a 2.5 percent increase next year and additional changes that will add another 1.8 percent.

On Vashon’ school board, chair Bob Hennessey said he, too, feels it is important to be competitive in order to provide quality

education and noted that Vashon has a high cost of living, more in line with Seattle than with some nearby rural districts.

“Money matters,” he said. “If we want to retain and attract the best, we have to pay a fair salary.”

Hilary Emmer, a citizen activist, has raised concerns about just how fiscally responsible this raise is.

“I am concerned,” she said. I do not see this as sustainable.”

Last year, she said, she went to a school board meeting where they decided not to buy certain textbooks for each student because they were concerned about the cost.

If we don’t have enough money for textbooks, I don’t see how we can give teachers a 3 percent raise when they’re already getting 1.9 percent,” Emmer said.

For this year’s budget, she added, the district had to take $250,000 from its reserves as well as rely on $275,000 from the Vashon Schools Foundation, drawing on more than $500,000 above what it gets from state and levy.

Soltman and Hennessey agree the salary increase is a lot of money for Vashon, but said they believe the district can afford it, in part because the district received $600,000 from the state as a down payment to fulfill the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, which requires the state to fully fund education by 2018. Some of that money will go to teacher salaries, Soltman said, and he expects the district to receive additional state funds in the coming years to support future salary increases.

In addition, Hennessey noted, the district has some personnel costs this year it will not have next year, including paying Susan Hanson, the former principal at Vashon High School, who resigned last year but is staying until Jan. 31 to help with the transition to the new building. Additionally, the district allocated funds equivalent to that of a full-time teacher to assist this year as the high school moves from a trimester schedule to a semester schedule, ensuring students are able to take all the classes they need during the transition period.

Martha Woodard, co-president of the Vashon Education Association and part of the contract bargaining team, said the raise is important for teachers. Academically, she said, Vashon frequently ranks second to Mercer Island but comes in at the “very, very low end” of what teachers in neighboring districts earn.

After the cuts of recent years, teachers were pleased to see an increase in their salaries, she said, but she noted the salary gap still exists.

“It’s still not enough,” she said. “Islanders need to know it is still not enough.”

Woodard has taught for 34 years at the district, she said, and often has seen young, talented teachers decide they can’t remain on Vashon because of the island’s high cost of living and low salaries — teachers who end up taking positions nearby where they can earn more money.

“As that gap in salary gets larger and larger and they can make $10,000 or $15,000 more a year somewhere else, that gets to be a problem,” she said.

As more island teachers retire, the salary disparity is going to have to be addressed further, she said, as the district works to bring more new teachers on board.

The heart of the problem, she and many others say, lies with the state.

“Education is not fully funded on Vashon by taxes. That’s the reality,” she said. “Every school is at a deficit when it starts because of state funding.”

As members of the community, Woodard noted, teachers know the district faces financial constraints. At the same time, she said, teachers need to be compensated fairly.

“I don’t want the problems of money to be solved on the backs of teachers,” she said.

Several other districts have also raised their salaries in percentages comparable to Vashon, Soltman said, so that while the district has not closed its salary gap it has not backslid, either.

Backsliding, he said, would be “unconscionable.”

But catching up completely to other districts right now did not seem prudent, he added.

“We’ve stretched to where I think it’s fiscally responsible,” he said. “That’s as far as I was willing to go.”

Soltman noted that with every budget, priorities are set and tradeoffs are made. The priority with this budget is retaining and attracting quality teachers, and he said he believes the tradeoffs will be few.

The district has been prudent with its money for several years now and established a healthy fund balance, he said. Additionally, 44 more off-island students are attending Vashon schools than projected, bringing in an unanticipated $230,000 in unexpected revenue — and costing the district little in return.

“We were able to (accommodate them) within the resources we had allocated this year,” he said.

Both Soltman and Woodard had high praise for the community support islanders have shown the schools, particularly through the Vashon Schools Foundation. Because of the realities of government funding, community financial assistance in the schools has been vital to their success in recent years, and that continues to be the case now, Woodard said.

“The Legislature does not give full funding for a college curriculum, period,” she said.

In addition to the salary raise in the contract, Woodard noted there are other important provisions as well, including that administrators will consult with instructors before asking them to do more work and the reinstatement of language limiting class sizes, a provision that had been dropped during the recession.

The school board will meet at 7 p.m. Thursday at Chautauqua Elementary School.

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