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Originally published Tuesday, June 24, 2014 at 5:34 PM

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Guest: How the union trumped voters in Seattle Public Schools budget

The Seattle teachers union prevented the School Board from cutting overhead costs in the school district’s budget proposal, writes guest columnist Jami Lund.

Special to The Times

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The most amazing part of this guest column comes at the end: "Jami Lund is senior education policy analyst at Freedom... MORE
"the Seattle Education Association ? seems to trump that of the elected board. If true, it is the union, not voters,... MORE
Jami, You are insane. This fall teachers will enter their sixth school year without a cost of living increase (COLA). ... MORE


SEATTLE citizens elect the School Board to make decisions that balance the interests of students, taxpayers and school employees. Unfortunately, the desires of the employees union — in this case, the Seattle Education Association — seems to trump that of the elected board. If true, it is the union, not voters, who really run Seattle Schools.

Earlier this year, the SEA organized teachers to vote down the budgets of more than 40 schools to prevent the School Board from reducing overhead costs by cutting back on administrative positions, such as secretaries and bookkeepers.

It only gets worse when you discover why Seattle Public Schools needs to cut budgets — despite increased state and local funding. A year ago, SEA union negotiators insisted on a collective-bargaining agreement that redirects levy funds toward extra wages for employees. The district relented, obligating itself to large pay increases above and beyond the salaries and benefits teachers already receive from state funds.

Following a Washington Supreme Court decision in 1976, the state uses a system to allocate state funds to pay the wages for each public schoolteacher. The state provides teachers a salary and benefits worth between $43,000 and $73,000 for their 180-day work year. The state funding system gives those with fewer than 15 years on the job an annual pay increase as well as raises for attaining additional education or certifications. The state pays for one teacher for every 19 students.

Originally, this funding model prohibited further negotiations over compensation at the local level. This was done to ensure wages were paid by the state rather than diverting local funds meant to be used for additional educational or extracurricular programs. Union officials, however, successfully lobbied to allow local collective bargaining over how levy funds are spent.

Last year, Seattle Schools already used levy funds to boost wages about 27 percent at a cost of $52 million, or about one-third of total levy funds. After local levy enhancements, Seattle teacher compensation currently ranges from $53,000 to $94,000.

The new union agreement requires the district to divert an additional $2.8 million for an extra 2 percent wage increase this year. Next year, the agreement calls for at least $3.6 million more.

These union demands have forced the school district to cannibalize services such as transportation, maintenance and administration. Ironically, the union both created this funding problem and — by voting down individual school budgets — it has vetoed the solution. Union officials suggested the district should spend its reserves, but making payroll that way would be a foolish and temporary fix.

One way to think of extra pay is in terms of work done. In this case, that means school days, but this only adds insult to injury. While the current wage enhancement represents 52 days’ worth of extra pay for teachers, Seattle has also reduced teachers’ workload by three days resulting in a shortened 177-day school year for Seattle students.

Families and taxpayers count on School Board members to represent the interests of students when they sit down to negotiate with union officials. Citizens will be given one more chance to speak out at the Seattle Public Schools’ budget hearing on June 25.

Challenge your elected board members to stand up for student services and to resist the pressure of union officials seeking the self-interest of district employees.

Seattle is stuck with its union contract until 2015, but school districts in Tacoma, Federal Way, Edmonds, Issaquah and Tahoma will all negotiate new agreements this year. Board members in those districts will soon face the same pressure to cannibalize services to increase wages.

Ultimately, the lesson of Seattle is that the Legislature needs to return to the rule that local funds are off-limits in wage negotiations. In fact, the state Legislature’s Basic Education Finance Task Force recommended exactly that in a report relied on by the state Supreme Court in its recent education funding decision. There is simply no reason to give unions the power to trump local democratic decisions, especially when the result is to shortchange our students.

Jami Lund is senior education policy analyst at Freedom Foundation in Olympia.

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